Foxconn Inspections Are Good PR, but Apple Needs to Protect Workers

NEWS ANALYSIS: While inspections are a good idea, planned visits from the FLA won’t find many problems, and won’t change anything in the way Apple's contract manufacturers treat employees.

The good news is that Apple is finally feeling the heat from its customers about how its contract manufacturer, Foxconn, treats the people who make the iPads and iPhones you love so much. The bad news is that those workers will see little, if any, benefit from visits by auditors from the Fair Labor Association, which Apple has asked to inspect the factories where these employees work.

The reason that the employees are unlikely to benefit is that Apple doesn't really have any enforcement mechanism in place, so even if there are violations of Apple's agreement with Foxconn, Apple can't really do anything about them. Once the inspection results are posted on the Fair Labor Association Website, Foxconn will revert to business as usual.

In addition to having little in the way of enforcement, the very real fact is that foreign auditors' visits are unlikely to find anything significant in the way of violations. The reasons are simple, as I've learned over many years as an inspecting officer during my time in the U.S. Navy. The reason is that during the visit by the inspectors, the factory managers will clean up their respective acts, and will follow specified safety and workplace rules.

During the inspections and audits, workers will follow the rules in regards to workplace safety€”for example, exposure to dangerous materials will be limited, managers will enforce age requirements and work-hour requirements, and they will coach the employees on exactly what to say when they're interviewed by the inspectors, and where possible, managers will be present when the interviews take place. Workers will comply with the coaching because they don't want to lose their jobs.

When the report comes out, it will show a number of minor violations, and Foxconn will promise to fix those. The inspectors will find those minor violations because Foxconn's managers will make sure they do. They're smart enough to know that the inspectors will keep looking until they find something, so Foxconn's managers will make sure it's something minor. If you think I'm being cynical, be aware that I've performed a lot of inspections over the years, and unless you're willing to divert from the normal inspection process, this is how inspections proceed.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...