human rights & business (and a few other things)

Lessons from the FLA’s report on Foxconn and Apple

While doing some research on the recently released Fair Labour Association’s report on working conditions at Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier in China, I found an article in Forbes in which the author concludes: “they’ve found very little that should surprise or concern anyone and there’s even less to do to put matters to rest”.

He points to the fact that most of the necessary changes such as raising salaries, limiting excessive overtime, and improving health and safety have been implemented already or are being worked on. So, really, what’s the fuss all about?

Points granted: in the business and human rights area, as I suppose in many other areas, the medias’ tendency to find one scapegoat, focus on it for a few weeks and then move on to another one is not that helpful for those of us who are truly concerned about business impacts on human lives. Moreover, it can rightfully give the targeted company an impression of unfairness. A sort of “why me and not the others” feeling and some challenging days and nights at work within PR departments.

Also, and more importantly as far as I am concerned, it gives the false impression that once this particular situation is dealt with, no matter how bad it was, then it’s all good and business can carry on as usual for that company and for the hundreds of others around the world operating pretty much under the same or worse conditions, but perhaps producing goods that are less fashionable than iPads .

The article in Forbes precisely falls into that trap: the argument developed is that that there were (minor) working conditions issues, that they are being dealt with and that therefore all is now fine.  But it goes further: it also says that working long hours for low pay actually is “the definition of what life is like for someone in a developing country” and that since some people had the misfortune to have been born in such countries they simply must work under these conditions.

This brings me to what I believe is the biggest challenge for the business and human rights area: people who genuinely think that since things have been done in a certain way for, well, ever then although it is unfair, this is how things are. And they should not or cannot be called into question. Those who do call them into question are whining over irrelevant matters and don’t understand business.

Just like the author of this article, I am not surprised by the poor working conditions that are highlighted in the report. But unlike him they do concern me because they are representative of a certain way of doing business that should evolve. Unlike him, I hope the FLA report and the media attention it got marks the beginning and not the end of debates on and recognition of the responsibility of business to respect human rights.

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