This month I am talking of an article released by The Guardian: “Life and death in Apple’s forbidden city.” This article describes the working conditions and the life of workers in one of the Foxconn units producing iPhones and others. It shows situation both usual and aberrant. Usual because when looking at figures, the working time, the wages… are matching the local prevailing practices. Aberrant, because sadness and powerlessness is so vivid in this document.
I have often stressed the limitation of certification approaches due, for a part, to the gap between the criteria and the actual situation found in the countries (Origin or consequence). Here, it would be the case again if there was a certificate, as the situation can’t meet the law. But it is important to understand that, on the data usually measured during an audit, this factory is bigger (much bigger) but not worse than usual. It is actually matching the local average in terms of health and safety, working time and wages… Indeed, if it wasn’t the case, at least for the last two topics (and especially the last one) the workers wouldn’t come to work in this factory. However, we often (and fortunately) visit factories where workers are smiling which is not the case here. Does that mean the working condition in these factories is better? Actually not, if we refer to the figures on working time, wages, health and safety… As long as the situation is not fully different than the local average it is even not correlated.
Then, this article points out that the situation in a factory is a complex reality and it is not limited to a list of figures or of check boxes. This complexity should influence the audit practices. Auditors should be free enough to explore and explain some specific cases. But they should be skilled enough to make proper audits. However, many auditing companies and even some industrial groups intend the auditor to focus only on hard facts. So much that some are not taking into account anything not written (as I was telling here). But that’s a vocabulary mistake. They are actually not asking for facts but for material evidences. An interview is a fact although its content can be contested. A written document is a fact, but it can also be contested as proven by the so many fake records that are provided to auditors. Thus, this very strict approach on auditing practices leads to a paradox. The brands are more and more confident in the audits results, while, as we can see in this factory of Foxconn, we are actually looking only at a small part of the reality. It will remain like that as long as we don’t accept and incorporate in the audit approache a company is complex and includes varied subjects that a completely standardized procedure fails to embrace.