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NY Times: Apple Asks Outside Group to Inspect Factories

-By Charles Duhigg and Nick Wingfiled

February 13, 2012- Responding to a growing outcry over conditions at its overseas factories, Apple said Monday 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 publicly divulging information that it once considered secret, after criticism that included coordinated protests last week at Apple stores around the world and investigative news reports about punishing conditions inside some factories.

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 in China.

Though some labor groups applauded Monday’s announcement, others said that the outside auditor Apple chose, the Fair Labor Association, which is based in Washington, was not sufficiently independent. And some critics questioned whether the inspections — Apple said the manufacturers had agreed to do them voluntarily — would sharply curtail problems or merely help Apple deflect criticism.

“F.L.A. 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.”



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