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Apple's China Crisis: Labor Inspections Begin as iPad Spat Heats Up

Posted by Sheila Shayon on February 16, 2012 01:53 PM

In the ongoing news of worker abuse and suicide at Apple's top eight suppliers in China, with Foxconn Technology Group's factories most prominent in the glaring international spotlight, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) has begun its on-site inspections of conditions at factories at Apple's behest, and the initial reports are better than expected.

"The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm," commented Auret van Heerden, president of the FLA, after visiting two Foxconn factories in Shenzhen in southern China and another plant in the central city of Chengdu with a contingent of 30 FLA inspectors. "I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory. 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."

Inspections are continuing, and will include other contractors beyond Foxconn. Van Heerden further noted that his organization has been dealing with worker suicide in Chinese factories since the 1990s. "You have lot of young people, coming from rural areas, away from families for the first time. 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.

Van Heerden defended the FLA, which has come under criticism from groups like SumOfUs.org. “Instead of actually solving the problem, they’re trying to whitewash it — hiring a business-funded group with a long track record of serving as a corporate mouthpiece,” said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Executive Director of SumOfUs.org.

The FLA grew from an initiative started by President Clinton in 1996 to reduce sweatshop labor around the world and board members include Nike and Adidas executives as well as non-governmental organizations and over 200 universities.

30 FLA staff members are visiting two Foxconn factories in Shenzhen in southern China and one in the central city of Chengdu and over three weeks, 35,000 workers will be asked to answer questions anonymously, entering responses on (what else?) Apple iPads such as:

how they were hired

were they paid a fee

were offered and signed contracts they understood

the condition of their dorm rooms and food

were their complaints are acted on

their emotional well-being

The FLA has promised a public interim report in March. "If Apple wanted to take the easy way out there were a whole host of options available to them. The fact that they joined the FLA shows they were really serious about raising their game," added Van Heerden.

Meanwhile, Apple Inc.'s trademark dispute over the iPad name in China has escalated, with authorities removing dozens of Apple tablets from store shelves in Shijiazhuang in response to a trademark infringement complaint filed by Chinese company Proview Technology. Apple says the iPads weren't seized but voluntarily removed while lawyers sort out the mess.

"You'll likely see more and more actions across the country. Apple did not follow Chinese law, so we're confident the authorities will side with us," Xie Xianghui, Proview Technology's lawyer, told the Los Angeles Times

In December, a court in Shenzhen rejected a lawsuit from Apple asserting its ownership of the iPad name ruling that Apple infringed on the trademark of Proview Technology regarding the “iPad” name. 

“Proview registered the iPad trademark in China in 2001," the Globe & Mail recounts. "Apple bought rights to the name from a Taiwan company affiliated with Proview but the mainland company says it still owns the name in China. A Chinese court rejected Apple's claim to the name in China last year.” 

Proview Technology has asked customs officials to stop imports and exports of iPads. Apple’s tablets are assembled in China and such action would impact global sales, as Apple continues to be in an uncomfortable spotlight on both legal and humanitarian fronts.

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