Yesterday, an Apple press release announced that the Fair Labor association would be beginning its audits of Foxconn facilities in China:
“We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.”
As part of its independent assessment, the FLA will interview thousands of employees about working and living conditions including health and safety, compensation, working hours and communication with management. The FLA’s team will inspect manufacturing areas, dormitories and other facilities, and will conduct an extensive review of documents related to procedures at all stages of employment.
Apple’s suppliers have pledged full cooperation with the FLA, offering unrestricted access to their operations. The FLA’s findings and recommendations from the first assessments will be posted in early March on its website, www.fairlabor.org. Similar inspections will be conducted at Quanta and Pegatron facilities later this Spring, and when completed, the FLA’s assessment will cover facilities where more than 90 percent of Apple products are assembled.
It's easy (and common) to doubt the sincerity of these audits, to assume that they're little more than a PR stunt by Tim Cook designed to help Apple avoid responsibility. It's certainly possible that such cynicism will prove out.
As someone who is on record with severe doubts that the solution to the tech industry's "China problem" will be easy, or quick, I'm certainly watching this development with interest and cautious optimism. I've been critical of rainy-day protestors and their expectations, yes, but that doesn't mean I don't want to see Apple step up and drive change, where possible, even if it does mean I favor a realistic approach.
With that in mind, the audits themselves have the potential of being the turning point, if not the solution.
Cynics will have you believe that we'll see FLA gloss over the issues and that Apple will subsequently use inspection results as an excuse to maintain the status quo.
That could definitely happen.
What if it doesn't, though? What if Apple uses this as a turning point? After all, Apple's response to various controversies has been nothing if not consistent. As John Gruber puts it: Measure twice, cut once.
China's problems may require a few extra measurements.
Let's assume that the report confirms the worst of our suspicions. (This is not an unlikely scenario.) Pundits and activists will, of course, cry foul and run with the idea that Apple is the root of all evil because, well, that's what pundits and activists do.
Why, though? It seems as though this is the time to expect (and encourage) Apple to do the extra measuring.
No one benefits if Apple rushes out a response. A band-aid won't cover this wound. The common criticism is that Apple is the only company with enough money to affect real change and, assuming that's true, they're also the one company that no one should want to rush.
This report is Apple's opportunity to step up and make something happen. Perhaps that something is a strict demand for change. Perhaps they throw billions of dollars at the problem. Perhaps Apple spearheads the tech industry's version of the Open Government Initiative and shames other companies into joining.
Perhaps it's a little of all of that. It's not going to be easy, though. There is no quick fix.
Results and recommendations are coming in early March. Tim Cook then has an opportunity. Anyone with a sincere interest in seeing real (and feasible) change in China needs to keep an open mind and see what he does with that opportunity. After all, the situation in China was decades in the making.
Let's not assume it's weeks in the solving.
We can certainly hold Cook's feet to the fire, but maybe it's a good idea to make sure we're not crippling the one person who has shown any real interest in addressing the problem, PR stunt or not.