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Apple Working to Improve Factory Conditions--What's Next?

Apple is beginning to use its clout to get suppliers to change. Don't assume that all will be better as a result.

Apple is always in the news these days. Whether it's the latest version of its highly-popular tablet, the iPad, or a new iPhone, the Cupertino-based company is always finding itself in the public eye. With all that popularity comes increased scrutiny. Right now, everyone is watching Apple thanks to the company's use of Chinese assembly plants such as Foxconn's Shenzhen factory, which has been heavily criticized in the past over accusations of poor treatment of workers.

Why Apple? Apple is one of Foxconn's biggest customers, making them an easy target for critics. A major part of the workload placed on Foxconn employees no doubt comes from Apple. This is why many believe that Apple should step in and do something about the way workers are treated. Surely if anyone out there has the clout to make them reconsider, it's Apple. As BYTE's Chris Spera puts it, "There are likely many other manufacturers and assemblers out there who would love to have the Apple contract."

Foxconn marketing shows workers looking ahead to a bold and innovative future.

Just last week, peaceful protestors assembled and showed up at Apple stores throughout the U.S. to deliver signed petitions from people asking for their next iPhone to be made under more ethical conditions.

And with Tim Cook as CEO, Apple has been more outspoken about the treatment of factory workers. Back in January, it released a list of all its suppliers. It detailed working conditions at the assembly plants and found that many were not operating within guidelines for fair treatment of the employees. Apple has even gone as far as to launch a supplier responsibility site where the public can read up on the progress of Apple's effort to improve factory conditions.

Apple's latest move to dampen criticism involves having the Fair Labor Association (FLA) conduct voluntary audits of the factories where the devices are assembled. They will be interviewing thousands of employees about working and living conditions as well as asking about health, safety and compensation, Apple said in a recent press release.

If the situation is assessed, the next challenge will be to figure out how to improve conditions. Will it entail raising pay? Hiring more workers? All of the above? And if so, how will that affect costs for the end user? The solution isn't always as easy as we'd like it to be.

It's also important to keep in mind that despite being paid what westerners would consider pitiful wages, many of these employees might actually be doing better than they would had they not started working at Foxconn--financially, at least. Let's us not forget that last we checked, the suicide rate at these factories was still lower than the national average in China. Heck, last we checked, the suicide rate was higher in the U.S. than at Foxconn. Workers at Foxconn are less likely to kill themselves than someone in the United States? It's hard to have precise numbers, of course, but this map should give you an idea of current suicide rates throughout the world.

This Al Jazeera report from May 2010 on the Foxconn suicides gives perspective from the victims' families and the company.

I'm not arguing that treatment of the Foxconn employees is fair. However, I do think it's more complicated than simply asking Apple to make the iPhone 5 in some way that's "ethical."

Worker safety is another issue. Recent factory explosions have also raised a few brows. One back in May was blamed on aluminum shavings, which are highly combustible, and weren't being properly disposed of. The audits carried out by the FLA will investigate safety measures taken by factories as well, and it's likely that changes will be carried out here before anywhere else.

Will we see changes in the immediate future? Not likely. Will we see changes at all? Perhaps, but I don't expect companies making boatloads of money doing what they are doing to be ready to change without making some sort of compromises.

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