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Group to inspect Apple suppliers

Company says audit will detail labor abuses at Chinese plants

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Demonstrators held protests at an Apple store in New York and at other locations around the world last week. Human rights advocates say workers at Apple’s suppliers are subjected to long hours, coerced overtime, and harsh working conditions.

Responding to a growing outcry over conditions at its overseas factories, Apple said yesterday that an outside organization had begun to audit working conditions at the plants where the bulk of iPhones, iPads, and other Apple products are built, and that the group would make its finding public.

For years, Apple has resisted calls for independent scrutiny of the suppliers that make its electronics. But for the first time it has begun divulging information that it once considered secret, following criticism that included coordinated protests last week at Apple stores and investigative reports about punishing conditions inside some factories.

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Last month, Apple released the names of 156 of its suppliers. Two weeks later, Apple’s chief executive sent an e-mail to the company’s 65,000 employees defending Apple’s manufacturing record while also pledging to go “deeper into the supply chain.’’ And now, the company has asked an outside group - a nonprofit financed partly by participating companies like Apple - to publicly identify specific factories where abuses are discovered.

Corporate analysts say Apple’s shifts could incite widespread changes throughout the electronics industry, since a lot of companies use the same suppliers. They also said it seemed calculated to forestall the kind of public relations problems over labor issues that in previous decades afflicted companies like Nike, Gap, and Disney.

“This is a really big deal,’’ said Sasha Lezhnev at the Enough Project, a group focused on corporate accountability. “The whole industry has to follow whatever Apple does.’’

But it is unclear if the efforts by Apple, whose $469 billion market value is the largest of any company in the world, will be enough to quiet its critics, some of whom had urged Apple to work with Chinese monitoring organizations with direct knowledge of its suppliers there.

Although some labor groups applauded yesterday’s announcement, others said that the outside auditor Apple chose, the Fair Labor Association, was not sufficiently independent. And some critics questioned whether the inspections - Apple said the manufacturers had agreed to do them voluntarily - would curtail problems or merely help Apple deflect criticism.

“FLA is part of a corporate social responsibility industry that’s totally compromised,’’ said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group for workers. “The auditing has been proven to be weak, and real solutions need a lot more than auditing. It takes empowering workers.’’

Apple, in a statement, said that the Fair Labor Association was an independent organization that had been given “unrestricted access’’ to the company’s suppliers. The first inspections, Apple said, were conducted yesterday at a factory in Shenzhen, China, known as Foxconn City, one of the largest plants within China. Human rights advocates have long said that Foxconn City’s 230,000 employees are subjected to long hours, coerced overtime, and harsh working conditions, all of which Foxconn disputes.

Chinese advocacy groups - which are often considered reliable, independent monitors - have published multiple reports saying that Foxconn employees regularly work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week, a violation of both Chinese law and Apple’s code of conduct. Apple has audited Foxconn City multiple times and Foxconn, in a statement sent to The New York Times, said it had never been cited by Apple for overworked employees.

Apple, in its statement, said the FLA’s findings and recommendations from its first inspections would most likely be posted online next month on the group’s website, fairlabor.org.

At Apple’s request, the group will also conduct audits of Apple’s other main assembly factories, including Foxconn’s plant in Chengdu and facilities run by Quanta and Pegatron.

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