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Factory Conditions Improve Where iPads Are Made


The outcome of that case hasn't been the only thing weighing on Apple. There have been complaints about working conditions at factories that make Apple products in China. But yesterday, the Fair Labor Association released a report documenting improvements in conditions at three huge factories that make products, like the iPhone and iPad. The factories are owned and run by Foxconn. They employ hundreds of thousands of workers. And as NPR's Steve Henn reports, some labor advocates hope changes at those factories could ripple through the entire industry.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Apple invited the Fair Labor Association into three Foxconn factories this past winter. The FLA surveyed tens of thousands of workers and found hundreds of problems with working conditions. In response, Auret van Heerden, president of the FLA, says Foxconn and Apple promised fixes.

AURET VAN HEERDEN: Most of the health and safety action items have been completed.

HENN: But one of the biggest challenges facing Foxconn and Apple is figuring out how to eliminate illegal overtime in all of their plants. This is a chronic problem in China. And many workers don't want 60 or 70 hour work weeks to disappear.

HEERDEN: So the blogosphere, you know, workers in China are very active on what they call the microblogs.

HENN: And right now these microblogs are full of workers complaining that hours and overtime pay are dropping. So Auret Van Heerden says Foxconn is raising hourly wages at the same time it's reducing overtime.

HEERDEN: So they're desperately trying to hire more workers at the same time. And, of course, that means offering a better package.

HENN: To make this work and also Apple's production quotas is a challenge.

HEERDEN: It is having this ripple effect through the labor market, because Foxconn is already starting to draw workers away from competitors and from other industries.

HENN: For years, Apple has been the subject of intense criticism about both labor and environmental problems in its supply chain. Activists say this is why: They believe if they can force reforms at Apple's largest suppliers, competition will force other industry players to follow along.

Linda Greer is the director of health programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Last year, Chinese environmentalists and the NRDC targeted Apple's Chinese suppliers for releasing toxins into the air and water. Greer says, at first, Apple was dismissive. But after environmentalists had proven some of their charges, Apple took action

LINDA GREER: They moved very aggressively on the problems that they found.

HENN: Now she'd like to see Apple become a company that aggressively polices its supply chain, looking for polluters

GREER: And then disqualifies factories from continuing business with them, if they are recalcitrant about cleaning up.

HENN: Greer says no factory want to lose Apple's business and many of these factories make products for other companies too. In this way, activists like Greer at the NRDC and Van Heerden at the Fair Labor Association hope that reforms at Apple will have a larger impact. But when I ask Van Heerden how much work there is left to do, he sighs.

HEERDEN: There's a lot. There really is a lot.

LI QIANG: (Foreign language spoken)

HENN: Li Qiang is the director of China Labor Watch.

QIANG: (Foreign language spoken)

HENN: Li Qiang says earlier this year, his group found and photographed underage workers at a plant that makes electronics for Samsung.

Samsung sent a team from Korea to investigate, but the company hasn't yet published what it found.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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