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Apple asks labor group to probe China suppliers

Workers are seen inside a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua in the southern Guangdong province in this May 26, 2010 file photo. The Fair Labor Association has begun audits of Apple suppliers' labor practices in China, at the company's request.

Apple announced Monday a non-profit labor group has started examining working conditions at some of its suppliers in China, as the company tries to calm a growing storm over how the workers who build iPads and iPhones are treated.

One particular supplier, Foxconn, has come under fire for working conditions at its facilities including alleged child labor violations and unsafe work environments. Labor advocates have long noted the problems, but the working conditions got more exposure following a scathing expose in the New York Times last month. The Foxconn plants have seen a rash of suicides in the past year.

Protests have swelled over Apple's labor issues, including demonstrations at the company's stores around the globe. There's also a petition on Change.org titled "Apple: Protect Workers Making iPhones in Chinese Factories" which has more than 200,000 signatures. The petition was started by Mark Shields, an Apple customer who appealed to the company to: "Please make these changes immediately, so that each of us can once again hold our heads high and say, 'I’m a Mac person.'"

Last week, Foxconn's computers were hacked as part of the growing protests, according to The Guardian.

The bad press has been rare for Apple, whose stock hit $500 a share for the first time ever Monday, so it’s not unexpected that the company would move to take some action. It’s unclear, however, whether these audits will lead to change.

The Fair Labor Association (FLA) will conduct what Apple calls, “special voluntary audits” of Foxconn’s plants in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China. The first inspection commenced Monday, according to a company statement. The findings will be posted on the organization’s website in March. www.fairlabor.org.

“We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.”

Some labor advocates aren't as hopeful.

"The entry of Apple to FLA is a welcome development," said Mary Gallagher, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Chinese Studies, and associate professor for political science. "However, I'm not optimistic that conditions in Apple's supplier factories will change if we only rely on occasional inspections from an overseas group."

Chinese workers, she continued, "are increasingly aware of their legal rights at the workplace but they often lack the proper tools to realize enforcement of those rights, such as the right to strike and the right to organize collectively."

Li Qiang, director of China Labor Watch based in New York, said "FLA speaks on behalf of the companies, not workers. If Apple wants the inspections be accurate and trustworthy, it should have labor advocacy groups who speak for the workers involved in the inspection process."

A call to FLA officials was not immediately returned.

The FLA will interview thousands of workers at the facilities, according to Apple, and review compensation, safety, and even the dormitories where Foxconn houses its employees.

The company's own audits of its final assembly plants, conducted since 2006, have done little to alter conditions at the facilities, according to labor experts and Apple’s own report on the state of its Chinese manufacturing partners, which was released last month.

China Labor Watch's Qiang said he sees Apple's move as more of an attempt to rebuild its public image rather than to help workers.

"What Apple should do now is to take action to solve the problems and improve the labor conditions in their supplier factories, not to conduct inspections and put the factories into the media and public's attention," he maintained.