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Labour rights group questions FLA praise for improved labour practices at Apple supplier Foxconn

A Hong Kong-based labour rights group isn't ready to applaud Apple partner Foxconn for a complimentary labour practices report issued by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) last week.

Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has been one of the most persistent critics of Apple and Foxconn in the years since a string of worker suicides and several industrial accidents brought attention to labour conditions at Foxconn-operated factories in mainland China where Apple's iPhones and iPads are assembled.

The FLA, which has been working with Apple on an audit of Foxconn, said in its most recent verification report on labour practices that Foxconn has made progress on improvements to things like overtime and working conditions.

The non-profit labour rights monitor, which conducted a thorough investigation of several Foxconn factories in China earlier this year, and released a report in March that found excessive overtime and unsafe working conditions, returned to three Foxconn factories in China recently to determine whether its recommendations for changes to labour policies and workflow were on track. Foxconn had earlier agreed to make FLA-recommended changes over the course of 15 months.

The full report is available on the FLA website.

"Our verification shows that the necessary changes, including immediate health and safety measures, have been made," Auret van Heerden, president and CEO of the FLA, said in a statement accompanying the most recent report. "We are satisfied that Apple has done its due diligence thus far to hold Foxconn accountable for complying with the action plan, including the commitment to reform its internship program."

But SACOM on Friday characterised the FLA's findings as demonstrating that there may have been "some policy changes at Foxconn but few improvements for workers."

"In its report, the FLA trumpets the speedy progress at Foxconn in remediating widespread labour rights violations. However, the FLA has overstated the improvements at Foxconn," SACOM project officer Debby Chan said in a statement.

Chan listed several areas where SACOM alleged Foxconn was failing to live up to a commitment to reforming working conditions at its facilities.

"Firstly, most of the actions completed by Foxconn are changes at the policy level only, but few substantial changes in labor practices were found at this stage," she said. "Secondly, Foxconn has deliberately delayed implementing many of the actions called for in the remediation plan, even those that are almost cost-free. Thirdly, workers have had no opportunity to participate in the remedial action process. SACOM has repetitively demanded democratic trade unions at Foxconn as an indispensable step in reforming its labor practices."

Alleging that "[t]he progress cited by the FLA is mostly on policy and procedure review," Chan contended that "it is too early for the FLA to conclude whether Foxconn and Apple have turned over a new leaf."

Though many other large computer and consumer electronics companies contract with Hon Hai Precision Industry subsidiary Foxconn to manufacture components and assemble equipment, Apple's success and profitability in recent years has drawn extra attention to its relationship with the Taiwan-based contract manufacturer.

Apple earlier this year asked the FLA to conduct audits of Apple's final assembly suppliers, including Foxconn. The issue made headlines after a series of articles in the New York Times questioned whether Apple products were being manufactured under safe and humane conditions. Concerns about Foxconn, however, have been going on much longer, with reports about worker suicides making news since at least 2010.