(Updated with letter from Apple CEO Tim Cook) Apple has become the first technology corporation to join the Fair Labor Association, according to a statement by the latter group. The organization was started in 1999 by former US President Bill Clinton with the mission of tracking global workplace conditions. Other members in the FLA include the likes of Adidas, Nike, Nestle and Syngenta; Nike became a founding member when news about Asian sweatshops in its supply chain became public, notes Bloomberg.
The move should in theory increase scrutiny of Apple suppliers, since the FLA performs unannounced audits on roughly 5 percent of members' supply chains annually. The company has come under fire for a series of problems with the firms in its chain, such as Foxconn. Some 12 workers have committed suicide at Foxconn's Chinese factories, while in the past year three people were killed and over 70 injured in explosions at two different iPad-related facilities.
The suicides have sometimes been blamed on sweatshop-like working conditions, while the accidents have raised worries about inadequate safety. Another example of a controversial supplier is Wintek, which has been accused of mishandling poisonings.
Apple will be expected to comply with FLA criteria, including a code of conduct based on standards vetted by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. Bloomberg remarks that Apple is believed to have about 380 direct suppliers in total.
Earlier today Apple published its 2012 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, in which it largely concentrated on issues of underage labor rather than safety and working conditions.
Update: A related email from Apple CEO Tim Cook has reportedly been sent to employees. The full text follows:
We’ve just released our sixth annual update on conditions in Apple’s supply chain, and I want to personally share some of the results with you.
We insist that our manufacturing partners follow Apple’s strict code of conduct, and to make sure they do, the Supplier Responsibility team led more than 200 audits at facilities throughout our supply chain last year. These audits make sure that working conditions are safe and just, and if a manufacturer won’t live up to our standards, we stop working with them.
Thanks to our supplier responsibility program, we’ve seen dramatic improvements in hiring practices by our suppliers. To prevent the use of underage labor, our team interviews workers, checks employment records and audits the age verification systems our suppliers use. These efforts have been very successful and, as a result, cases of underage labor were down sharply from last year. We found no underage workers at our final assembly suppliers, and we will not rest until the number is zero everywhere.
We’ve also used our influence to substantially improve living conditions for the people who make our products. Apple set a new standard for suppliers who offer employee housing, to ensure that dormitories are comfortable and safe. To meet our requirements, many suppliers have renovated their dorms or built new ones altogether.
Finding and correcting problems is not enough. Our team has built an ambitious training program to educate workers about Apple’s code of conduct, workers’ rights, and occupational health and safety. More than one million people know about these rights because they went to work for an Apple supplier. Additionally, Apple offers continuing education programs free of charge at many manufacturing sites in China. More than 60,000 workers have enrolled in classes to learn business, entrepreneurial skills or English.
Finally, we are taking a big step today toward greater transparency and independent oversight of our supply chain by joining the Fair Labor Association. The FLA is a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving conditions for workers around the world, and we are the first technology company they’ve approved for membership. The FLA’s auditing team will have direct access to our supply chain and they will report their findings independently on their website.
No one in our industry is driving improvements for workers the way Apple is today. I encourage you to take some time to read more about these efforts, so that you can be as proud of Apple’s contributions in this area as I am. The details are online now at apple.com/supplierresponsibility.