This week Apple announced that the Fair Labor Association would do new, special audits of working conditions at the Chinese plants where more than 90% of its products are made. The company, which is now the world’s largest as based on the value of its shares, is responding to the backlash from a recent New York Times investigation into employee suicides and harsh, unsafe working conditions at Foxconn, its main supplier.
Both the Fair Labor Association and Apple tout the FLA’s “independent external monitoring” function, under which third-party monitoring associations that have been accredited by the FLA pay unannounced visits to the factories. (Obviously in the case of Apple the suppliers are now well aware that these visits are and will be happening.) However as the New York Times further reports, FLA has been “criticized by numerous labor unions and anti-sweatshop advocates as toothless and too cozy with its corporate members.”
Its funding model does suggest some conflict of interest: it comes in part from the very companies that it monitors. This is also true of the dozens of affiliated universities for which FLA monitors the production of licensed goods and apparel. Critics rightly ask: how objective can the FLA and its monitors be when examining the very organizations that sign their checks? Clearly the funding is a suasive force that might, intentionally or no, prevent the whole truth from being told.
It also doesn’t help when the head of FLA, Auret van Heerden, makes statements like the following to Reuters just as the new audits are getting underway:
After his first visits to Foxconn, van Heerden said, “The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm.”
He spent the past several days visiting Foxconn plants to prepare for the study.
“I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory,” he said. “So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory. It’s more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps.”
It’s baffling that van Heerden, chief auditor, would make such superficial and patronizing comments at this juncture. This will only add to his credibility problems. This is a shame because van Heerden has shown that he can be an eloquent voice on the side of fair labor practices. For example, despite being a bit of an advertisement for the FLA, his 2010 TED talk did include some thought-provoking points. Most interesting to me were his points on the true supranational powers of today.
In his talk van Heerden reminds us of a startling truth: the only truly supranational entities in the world today are the multi-national corporations. As such, consider the amount of power that they hold to provide, or to deny us of, public goods like health, safety and dignity. So while they may be technically correct when they argue that they’re not legally liable for the working conditions in the factories of their own suppliers, they are adopting a narrow view that’s not in keeping with the suasive power that they now hold all around the globe. The suppliers, whose relatively small businesses they can make or break, will do exactly what their supranational clients tell them to do. To argue otherwise is disingenuous.
And we should realize the extent to which American companies are leaning into this supranational trend. As the Wall Street Journal reported last year:
U.S. multinational corporations cut their work forces at home by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing them overseas by 2.4 million, according to data from the U.S. Commerce Department. In all, U.S. multinationals employed 21.1 million people in the U.S. in 2009 and 10.3 million elsewhere.
We should change the public lexicon to call these companies what they are — not generic “multinationals” or “corporations” but rather ”supranationals”. More powerful than the United Nations General Assembly, and now playing a role that has completely outrun our outdated notions of what large corporations are and should be.
Also, when the Fair Labor Association releases its report on Apple early next month, keep in mind that it and other supranationals have paid for their own report card.
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Image credit: Alex E. Proimos on Flickr