Thousands of Chinese factory workers will be given the chance to detail the punishing conditions on assembly lines producing Apple iPads and iPhones after the United States company bowed to criticism and agreed to allow independent inspections of its supply chain.
Facing a growing scandal over the working conditions of those making its best-selling gadgets, Apple has called in assessors from the same organisation that was set up to stamp out sweatshops in the clothing industry more than a decade ago.
The move is an admission that Apple's own system of monitoring suppliers has failed to stamp out abuses, and that the negative publicity surrounding its Chinese operations threatens to cause a consumer backlash against its products.
But campaigners for Chinese workers immediately criticised the company for conducting a public relations exercise instead of actually alleviating the long hours, harsh management and safety problems that have driven some workers to suicide and led to fatal accidents at plants.
Inspectors from the Fair Labour Association have started work at the Foxconn factory near the southern city of Shenzhen, where iPads are made.
In 2010, 13 suicides or attempted suicides at that factory, known as Foxconn City, first turned a spotlight on the companies Apple uses to build its devices. Another Foxconn factory in Chengdu will also be inspected, Apple said, with the first findings to be published by the FLA next month. Apple has come under fire for building a consumer electronics powerhouse on the backs of exploited workers, many of whom earn as little as 50c an hour.
Employees of some suppliers complain of 10-hour shifts with only one permitted break, and of being forced to stand for so long that their legs swell. Last year, there were two fatal explosions at plants producing Apple goods, including one caused by the ignition of dust released by the polishing of new iPads.
The FLA will ask employees about working and living conditions, including health and safety, pay and hours.
"We believe workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we have asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers," said Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook.
Last week, the campaign group China Labour Watch wrote an open letter to Cook demanding that Apple accept lower profits so suppliers can raise wages, employ more staff and invest in improving safety.
Yesterday, the organisation dismissed Apple's commitment to independent inspections as a publicity stunt. "We already know what the conditions are like in the factories," said Fan Yuan, a China Labour Watch activist. Cook, who took over the leadership of Apple last year from the late Steve Jobs, is the architect of the company's lean supply chain, which has helped drive profits.
The company is now the most valuable in the world, at US$460 billion ($554 billion).IndependentBy Stephen Foley