A report issued last week raised serious concerns about the working conditions at the Chinese factories of Apple supplier Foxconn. It followed a long period of campaigning by people and groups alarmed at the apparent conditions.
The investigation, by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), found poor working conditions and abuse of employees, leading Foxconn to pledge to make improvements. It revealed compensation issues, health and safety risks, and other problems that have led to a "sense of unsafe working conditions among workers".
The report, which in places issues a strong condemnation of the Foxconn business, may be seen as a victory for the campaigners and a sign that Apple is prepared to be more transparent about what happens in its supply chain. But experts say that the proof of its effectiveness will be measured by the action taken by Foxconn and Apple to rectify the problems.
Prior to the report's publication, anti-sweatshop campaigners spoke to ComputerworldUK, to express their worry that corporate funding of the FLA meant the exercise could be a whitewash – and would not necessarily result in any change.
Apple's decision to send inspectors to Shenzhen city, a vast complex run by electronics manufacturer Foxconn employing 230,000 workers, came in the wake of a damning New York Times report that contained allegations of mistreatment of workers and fatal industrial accidents.
The exposé had piled pressure on Apple to tackle the poor labour record in its supply chain and followed a spate of 14 suicides in 16 months at factories run by Foxconn, the main manufacturer of iPhones and iPads. The phenomenon was brought to light by the grimly surreal pictures of suspended nets designed to catch people jumping off buildings.
This prompted Apple to become the first technology company to sign up to the FLA, a US-based not-for-profit, labour standards monitoring body. This meant allowing an independent assessment of its supply chain and followed the disclosure in January of all of its 156 suppliers.
But Apple's decision to engage the FLA prompted campaigners and labour organisations to question the 'independence' of the organisation, because of its financial relationship with the companies it monitors.
Founded in 1999 on the back of an anti-sweatshop initiative, the FLA describes its mission as promoting and protecting workers' rights and improving working conditions globally. It boasts a broad coalition of supporters including 'socially responsible companies', universities and civil society organisations and claims to have helped improve the lives of millions of workers.