In the world of global manufacturing, it seems that multinational corporations are destined to take their turn in the sweatshop spotlight. Apple’s turn, merely the latest, has taken an unusual twist.
Chief executive Tim Cook, on a trip to China this past week, visited a Foxconn factory and released photos of grinning workers on the iPhone production line. Cook’s trip came after months of investigations, centered on Foxconn, of Apple’s alleged sweatshop conditions. As the story gained momentum — in part because of a theatrical performance by a man named Mike Daisey, who has since apologized for fabricating much of his narrative — Apple hired a third-party monitoring group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), to audit working conditions at its factories. The FLA issued a report Thursday citing widespread overtime abuses and subsistence pay at Foxconn, and the manufacturer and Apple pledged to do better.
Apple and Foxconn appear to be on the right track. But independent monitoring and critical reports on factory standards have failed to make real change before. It is a promise to do better by an organization that isn’t really beholden to anyone. Monitoring, which may offer wary consumers a balm, used to be the best that international manufacturers had. That is no longer the case, and Apple — long a leader in the tech world — now has both an opportunity and a responsibility to prove itself a leader in the world of ethical working conditions. The company need only look as far as the garment industry for an example.