Result of iPhone factory outrage: Apple sends more inspectors to Foxconn

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Apple announced Monday that it is requesting extra audits of the labor conditions at factories where its iPhones and iPads are built. The inspections will be done by the Fair Labor Association, a labor rights group Apple recently joined, starting Monday at Foxconn’s factory in Shenzhen, China. Audits are also scheduled for Foxconn’s Chengdu facility, as well as the factories of suppliers Quanta and Pegatron.

In a press release, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers. The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.”

The reason Apple is ordering these “unusual” inspections of its factories? It’s likely two-fold: First, the New York Times’ late January expose on the working conditions at Foxconn’s plants that make popular consumer electronics items, including iPhones and iPads, which were highlighted in the series. And second, the resulting outrage at those conditions. Consumers, many of whom call themselves Apple fans and owners of iPhones and iPads, have responded in different ways. The most visible have been the online petition and the subsequent staged delivery of 250,000 signatures by and to Apple locations last week asking for an “ethical iPhone.”

Foxconn is up first, likely because of its visibility and size, followed by Quanta and Pegatron “later this spring,” according to Apple.

This is how Apple says the FLA will handle the inspection:

As part of its independent assessment, the FLA will interview thousands of employees about working and living conditions including health and safety, compensation, working hours and communication with management. The FLA’s team will inspect manufacturing areas, dormitories and other facilities, and will conduct an extensive review of documents related to procedures at all stages of employment.

Apple’s suppliers have promised “full cooperation with the FLA” and will offer “unrestricted access to their operations,” Apple says. Whatever they find will be posted, along with recommendations, sometime in early March on the association’s website.

These are not the first inspections Apple has done of its factories — far from it. The company has maintained that it’s been doing all it could to improve the conditions, and published its first supplier report in January — right before the Times’ investigation was to be published. After the stories hit, Cook said in an email to employees that he was “outraged” by the accusation that Apple didn’t care about the workers in its suppliers’ factories. However, things didn’t blow over.

Apple doesn’t respond to outside accusations publicly very often. So the fact that the company feels like it needs a third-party to verify factory conditions and try to demonstrate that it cares about being a good global citizen means that the protests and response from its own customers hit a nerve.

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