Apple lets an NGO investigate Foxconn

Apple has agreed to let an NGO carry out what it calls an “unprecedented” inspection of working conditions at its main contract manufacturers in China.

Now that Steve Jobs has left the planet, even Apple’s unpaid press office the New York Times is writing pieces about how his gear was made in sweatshops – which is really putting Cupertino on the spot.

Jobs himself always denied that Foxconn was a sweatshop  and claimed that his teams regularly inspected the plants and made recommendations. Now, it seems that Apple is having major image problems with its Foxconn operation.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has decided it would be better to let an outside body into the plant to compile a detailed report. He has let the DC-based Fair Labour Association monitor conditions at the factories of its suppliers.

From Apple’s perspective, it is hoping that using the FLA will counter criticism that it was glossing over problems at the facilities According to Reuters, Apple said an FLA team began inspections at Foxconn’s enormous complex in Shenzhen, known as Foxconn City.

It will go to Foxconn’s facility in Chengdu, China, where three people were killed last year in a blast.

Inspections will also be carried out at Apple suppliers Quanta and Pegatron later this year.

But there is no guarantee that Apple will have to follow through on any of the requirements of the NGO’s report. If it describes Foxconn as a sweatshop, Apple is not bound to do anything about the report.

After all, if its own inspections and recommendations still lead to people throwing themselves off buildings, one has to question how effective it thinks an outside report will be.

Apple has some advantages in following this plan.

If it takes a few months to investigate, then Apple would be hoping that it will have got its latest range of products out the door before it has to seriously tackle the problem.

Perhaps in a few months, the New York Times will be focused on the new iPad and will have given up on writing all the bad stuff about China.