Foxconn hikes wages, but early praise in inspections has some worried about impartiality

Early inspections into mobile device manufacturer Foxconn resulted in praise from the independent nonprofit group hired by Apple to inspect working conditions at plants. However, some see this praise as premature and worrisome.

As The New York Times reports, Fair Labor Association President, Auret van Herdeen, made comments about Foxconn’s Shenzen plant after a preliminary tour. Van Herdeen reportedly said Foxconn’s “facilities are first class” and “Foxconn is really not a sweatshop.”

Those comments are problematic for some, however, because the FLA just started its inspection of Foxconn, and Van Herdeen isn’t a trained inspector: he just leads the nonprofit. It calls into question the impartiality of the inspections when they’ve only just begun, and some seem to believe that Van Herdeen’s comments suggest Apple’s inspections are just a bid to calm public fervor over its supply chain issues.

Apple hired the FLA to inspect supply chain manufacturer Foxconn following a scathing New York Times article published last month alleging poor working conditions in the Taiwanese manufacturer’s Chinese plants. Foxconn and other companies in Apple’s supply chain, such as Pegatron, have long been accused of providing unsafe conditions, forcing employees to work as much as 70 hours a week, coercing overtime from those workers and more. In the last two years, workers have been injured and killed in explosions at Foxconn and Pegatron, and Foxconn has been the site of several suicides by employees, reportedly spurred by working conditions.

According to a report from TechCrunch, Foxconn took a step of its own to make conditions better for workers, hiking wages between 16 percent and 20 percent for Shenzen plant employees. “The base pay of junior level worker in Shenzhen is now at 1,800 yuan ($290) per month and, if the worker passes a technical examination, it will be raised to 2,200 yuan,” TechCrunch reports. “Three years ago the base pay was just 900 yuan per month.”

Foxconn is a huge employer in China and its employees make significantly more than minimum wage in the country. Back in December, the company announced it would be doubling the size of its Zhengzhou plant, where it assembles iPhones, adding another 100,000 workers to the 100,000 hired in 2011.

But Foxconn has repeatedly faced scrutiny, and by extension, so has Apple. Some iPhone and iPad customers have called for Apple to create an “ethical iPhone” that would force the company to take a better stance against worker mistreatment in its supply chain; some even organized a few small protests last month over the issue.

Apple CEO Tim Cook responded to the NYT story last month by basically saying it was untrue, while also promising that Apple would take further steps to help protect workers at its partners’ plants. The FLA inspection is its first action toward that end – but with Van Herdeen’s comments, many people watching Apple’s actions closely are already wondering if the inspection is less about workers and more about public relations.

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