If Foxconn Is Fixed, Who Do We Help Next?

Apple’s factory is no longer public enemy number one. See what is.
Apple CEO Tim Cook visits Foxconn factory to see working conditions for himself. (Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 3, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Congratulations, Internet, you've done it again. After months of media outrage, online petitions, and even a meta-scandal, Apple's most maligned factory is preparing to make a turnaround. Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited Foxconn in person (unlike the late Steve Jobs) in the clearest message yet that the company is serious about improving working conditions. As Auret van Heerden, president and chief executive of the Fair Labor Association, said to The New York Times, it's a tipping point: "They have publicly promised to make changes in a manner that they will have to deliver on it."

Only time will tell if the manufacturer will make good on its promise, so Foxconn isn't off the hook yet. But since we (and more importantly, they) know the world is watching, here are a few other mistreated workforces that might benefit from our attention in the meantime.

1. Samsung Factory Workers

As Jonny Evans of Computerworld notes, Apple isn't the only one with problems. South Korean tech giant Samsung made headlines last June for reports finding a high incidence of cancer among its factory employees, with the Seoul Administrative Court acknowledging for the first time a link between leukemia deaths of Samsung employees and their working conditions.

According to Public Eye, a Swiss-based nonprofit that highlights social and economic consequences of large multinationals, Samsung has long been guilty of environmental pollution, trade union repression, corruption, and tax flight. Their continued use of banned and highly toxic substances in their factories without informing or protecting its workers has led to at least 140 workers being diagnosed with cancer, 50 of whom have died.

2. Garment Workers for Tommy Hilfiger, Kohl's, Gap

Over the past five years, nearly 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have been burned to death in preventable fires, most of them young girls. Fifteen months ago, 29 workers making clothes for Tommy Hilfiger, Kohl's, and Gap died when electrical wiring sparked a blaze and trapped them inside the padlocked factory. As Jezebel notes, the events are eerily reminsicent of New York's infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (one of the U.S.'s deadliest industrial disasters)—except for the fact that workers in the U.S. haven't died for lack of basic fire safety standards in over a century.

When ABC confronted Hilfiger about the unsafe conditions after a New York fashion week show last month, the designer responded: "I can tell you that we no longer make clothes in those factories. We pulled out of all of those factories." While that wasn't true, Hilfiger did later have a change of heart, negotiating an agreement with Bangladeshi labor-rights groups to create safety standards for its suppliers and fund an independent inspector to design and audit the factories for compliance. Meanwhile, Gap and Kohl's have both demured, calling the situation "complex" and saying they are currently in "discussions" about what to do next.

3. Freeport McMoRan Mine Workers

Thanks to a 1967 deal with the then-dictator of Indonesia, Suharto, Arizona-based mining company Freeport McMoRan has been eviscerating the landscape of West Papua for decades. According to leaked documents, the company has dumped over a billion tons of mine waste into rivers and forests and has endangered a once-rich ecosystem with a blanket of copper-laden dust covering everything for 90 square miles.

Last December, 8,000 of Freeport's 23,000 mine workers went on strike over the unsafe working conditions, with at least eight people killed in attacks and clashes with police. While workers agreed to return to the mine after negotiating a 37 percent increase in wages—starting at $1.50 an hour—they stopped work again in mid-March after complaining that management had failed to enforce the promised changes.

4. American Women and Children

Like everyone else, we're underpaid and overworked. But one area where we really lag behind is our approach to maternity leave. Unlike the rest of the developed world, the United States doesn't offer paid leave for new mothers nationally, and even mothers at larger companies are only allowed 12 weeks of job-protected leave (in contrast, Australia offers a full year of protection for all women).

As the AP notes, this draconian policy towards the next generation of American mothers puts us near the bottom of the international barrel. Out of 168 nations in a Harvard University study from 2004, 163 had some form of paid maternity leave, leaving the United States in the rarefied company of Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland in our treatment of expectant mothers. With trillions already spent bailing out banks, car companies, and predatory lenders, it would take a comparably modest investment to bring immediate relief and support for half of our current population—not to mention the next generation of Americans.