Friday, March 30, 2012

The report on Foxconn from the Fair Labor Association came out late yesterday, reporting numerous labor violations at Foxconn.

Despite the front-page coverage of these revelations, the content of this report is not a surprise to anyone paying attention. Apple’s own supplier responsibility reports have routinely shown that there are severe, ongoing issues that they chose not to address--those reports go all the way back to 2006.

Here is Apple in 2006, from their own reports:

“Employees worked longer hours than permitted by our Code of Conduct, which limits normal workweeks to 60 hours and requires at least one day off each week…[Foxconn] has enacted a policy change to enforce the weekly overtime limits set by our Code of Conduct. The policy change has been communicated to supervisors and employees and a management system has been implemented to track compliance… Supervisors must receive approval from upper level management for any deviation.”

“We’ve engaged the services of Verité, an internationally recognized leader in workplace standards dedicated to ensuring that people around the world work under safe, fair and legal conditions. We are committed to ensuring compliance with our Code of Conduct and will complete audits of all final assembly suppliers in 2006… In cases where a supplier’s efforts in this area do not meet our expectations, their contracts will be terminated.”

Here is Apple in 2012, again from their own reports:

“We continue to address excessive work hours, and this has been a challenge throughout the history of our program…Apple limits factory working hours to a maximum of 60 work hours per week and requires at least one day of rest per seven days of work — except in emergencies or unusual circumstances…Reducing excessive overtime is a top priority for our Supplier Responsibility program in 2012…

“Apple is the first technology company to be admitted to the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The FLA has made incredible progress over the past decade to improve working conditions and protect workers… We will open our supply chain to an FLA auditing team. This team will measure our performance against the FLA’s own Workplace Code of Conduct…If a supplier is unwilling to change, we terminate our relationship.”

That’s six years with no change, other than that Verite was used as an outside monitor in 2006 to quell discussion, and now it is the Fair Labor Association's turn. It's useful to have someone to slap your hand when the world is looking.

This isn’t news. It isn't news that unions have faced overwhelming opposition at Foxconn, that management has intimidated workers into falsifying answers to investigators, that workers feel they are in an unsafe environment where half-constructed factories sometimes explode as they are pressed into overtime production making iPads. And that then, after a round of PR and warm assurances, a second factory explodes hours after Apple inspects inspection that lasts ten minutes.

The fact is that no survey was needed by the FLA to tell Apple that the rights of workers were being violated at Foxconn. Apple could have read its own reports, as well as the reports of SACOM, China Labor Watch, SOMO, and the accounts of many journalists who have written on the subject.

Today Apple and Foxconn are making bold promises. But this has happened before—they made similar promises in 2006, after Verite performed its auditing, and they promised that excessive overtime and abusive conditions would soon be a thing of the past.

What happened? Nothing happened.

The world turned its shoulder and went back to sleep. And as soon as the world wasn't looking, Apple and Foxconn kept doing nothing.

Apple's gestures today are good steps, if they are actually implemented. If Apple and Foxconn are held to account. If they have given up their old ways, embraced working with their workers, and this is their version of making amends and rectifying what they've done.

The wage increases tied to moving to legal working hours are vital, though it's appalling that Apple and Foxconn give themselves fifteen months to come into compliance with existing Chinese law, laws they know they've been willfully violating for years.

But here's something that is news.

If we knew all this—if the white papers and articles existing on these labor situations have been out for years and years—why is something happening now?

The answer is as clear as it is brutal: we didn't care.

Nothing is possible until people care.

We would do anything we can not to think about how all our things are made, not to think about the true cost of our world, not to admit that we are locked into an intimate embrace with an authoritarian government so that our way of life depends on millions of people never truly being free.

Until we jump that empathy gap, nothing is possible. Until we find a way to actually commit to that leap of imagination and feel that we are connected, we will do everything we can to deny it.

This story has always been larger than anyone—larger than my work, than Apple, than Foxconn. It belongs to all of us.