Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Apple iPad plant is 'way, way above average' says inspector

February 15, 2012: 2:58 PM ET

It's not a pressure-cooker environment that is the problem, but boredom and alienation

Foxconn workers. Source: Everything iCafe

"The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm."

That's Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association, speaking to Reuters after an initial visit to the Foxconn factory where Apple's (AAPL) iPads are built.

Apple has been hit with a barrage of criticism over the working conditions in the Chinese factories where its products are assembled: from newspaper reports of worker suicides, by monologist Mike Daisey's interviews with underage workers, by a front-page exposé in the New York Times, by petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of would-be customers.

It was the first question put to CEO Tim Cook at an investor conference Tuesday, and he answered at length:

"No one in our industry is doing more to improve working conditions than Apple," he said. "We think the use of underage labor is abhorrent," he added. "If we find a supplier that intentionally hires underage labor, it's a firing offense."

The next day, the president of the non-profit organization Apple has invited to conduct an independent investigation gave a long interview to Reuters:

"I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory," said the FLA's van Heerden. "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."

He noted that the organization has been dealing with suicides in Chinese factories since the 1990s.

"You have lot of young people, coming from rural areas, away from families for the first time," he said. "They're taken from a rural into an industrial lifestyle, often quite an intense one, and that's quite a shock to these young workers.

"And we find that they often need some kind of emotional support, and they can't get it," he added. Factories initially didn't realize those workers needed emotional support."

Whether intended or not, van Heerden's remarks served to support Cook's contention that no one has done more than Apple to address the working conditions at factories most of its competitors use, but for which it's taken all the heat.

Some found it odd that van Heerden would grant any kind interview at this stage in the FLA's investigation.

"I'm flabbergasted," says Daisey, whose reporting out of China's Shenzhen city helped draw international attention to the problems there. "I know of no labor group that thinks it appropriate to comment on a company it's investigating before that investigation has even begun."

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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