Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ABC previews 'iFactory,' an inside look inside Apple's partner Foxconn

ABC has become the first news organization to be allowed to look inside consumer electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn’s facilities. While many tend to associate Foxconn exclusively with Apple, Foxconn builds products for many other firms, including Nokia, HP, and more.

The name of the report points to that misconception: "iFactory: Inside Apple." The full report will air Tuesday on ABC's "Nightline." A preview of the video report is already up on ABC's site, with extensive written coverage.

Although it was no secret that Chinese electronics factories had joined garment manufacturers for retailers such as WalMart as being accused --- and confirmed --- of horrible conditions for employees, both safety-related and more, everything came to a head recently when the New York Times published two stories on Apple's critical manufacturing partner, Foxconn.

The first article covered reasons that Apple would never return manufacturing to the U.S., including not just cheap labor, but also the speed at which Foxconn can react to change. As we wondered previously, that speed may not be simply because they are efficient workers, but instead because of the treatment they are given.

No less than the chairman of Foxconn parent company Hon Hai called his employees "animals," and although you might think he was kidding, Terry Guo invited a zoo director to speak to his managers about how to deal with employees.

The second article covered the conditions at Foxconn. That New York Times article echoed other articles and reports over the years.

Since the second report, Apple has seemed to have been on a PR blitz. The access given to ABC News is just latest move in that set of maneuvers.

Some have openly wondered if ABC has a conflict of interest in the story. For one, why did Apple pick ABC News? There are a number of things that could lead to a conflict of interest, including the fact that ABC News is owned by the Walt Disney Corporation and Disney CEO Bob Iger serves on the Apple Board of Directors, as well as the fact that the Steve Jobs Trust is Walt Disney's largest shareholder.

However, the ABC reporter involved, Bill Weir, was quite clear in saying that those factors "would have no bearing on my reporting and I'm pretty sure Apple knows it."

The preview already shows some comments that will likely shock some, although if they had been paying attention to past exposes of the conditions at garment factories, it really shouldn't. Among the things in the video preview and the printed story:

Zhou Xiao Ying admitted, when asked by Weir about what she thinks about during the monotony of a days work, "A lot of times I think about how tired I am. I think about resting."

Weir interviewed a top Foxconn executive to discuss the famous 2010 suicides that prompted the company to put up nets around its "factory dormitories." Also in the mix: two explosions at two separate iPad factories that injured 77, and killed four. Combustible dust exploded as iPads were being polished, an issue that SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) presaged in a report.

Louis Woo, a former Apple executive who now serves as an advisor to Terry Gou said,

"You being here is part of the openness, part of the learning, part of the change that Foxconn is undergoing. Of course you can argue that we should have opened up five years ago. Well five years ago, we are under the radar screen, nobody really knows us, we are doing well. Why should I open it up?"

When asked if --- or why --- it took tragic suicides for Foxconn to rethink its treatment of workers, Woo said,

"I think absolutely, absolutely, yeah. you know, success is the mother of failure. Because we've been so successful, successful in the sense that it seems everybody's happy. Right?"

It's a shocking admission, and one that should make Americans and other Westerners in love with their gadget think about the human cost of those electronics.

Interestingly, it does not escape Weir that the Foxconn employees he interviews on the assembly line in general give him terse, company-line answers. It's something that many have wondered: as the Fair Labor Association conducts its interviews of employees, will they speak freely? The interviews are being held in groups, and those with a suspicious nature wonder if "moles" that might try to curry favor with management will "snitch" on any giving a less than favorable impression of the company.

Foxconn also wasn't surprised by the audit. As we noted earlier, any audit done on any manufacturing in these sets of circumstances, if not done by surprise, is likely to find a "cleaned-up" factory.

SACOM itself thinks Apple's self-imposed audits are largely useless.

Perhaps, since the One-Percent can do little to effect corporate change, especially when soulless corporations are deemed people, the one lesson Americans can take from this story is as follows.

Zhou Xiao Ying, who spoke earlier of being tired all the time, was asked by Weir:

"For all the people in America who buy one of these, what do you want them to know about you?"

Her reply was heartrending.

"I want them to know me," she said. "I want them to know we put a lot of effort in this product so when they use this please use it with care."

"iFactory: Inside Apple," will air Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 11:35 p.m. EST/PST on "Nightline," in a special two-hour edition, with previews on both "Good Morning America" and "World News with Diane Sawyer," all on ABC.

You can watch the ABC preview below.

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