Apple and Human Rights: Could the Market Work?

Apple and Human Rights: Could the Market Work?

For those of you no longer getting the New York Times in print, this was the lead story in today’s paper.  (Somewhat weirdly, it shows up on the webpage as a blog post.)  Apple’s signing on to Fair Labor Association standards and auditing is probably the biggest thing ever to happen in the world of private, rights-related codes of conduct.  This could be a major test case for the efficacy and legitimacy of non-governmental rights regimes.

The risk is that it ends up looking rigged.

“The problem with the F.L.A. is that it lives by rules set up by the companies itself,” said Mr. Lezhnev of the Enough Project. “Real transparency will transform the electronics industry. But if it’s just a whitewash, I’m not sure how much will change.”

(See this story, also today, on the Sierra Club and big money from natural gas companies.)

I’m guardedly optimistic.  The FLA board may include industry representatives, but it also has also people like Jim Silk (Yale’s Schell Center) and Meg Roggensack of Human Rights First. Matching its profile, Apple’s recent human rights dramas are getting a huge amount of attention.  I don’t think the FLA or anyone else is going to be able to sweep big problems under the rug.  We’ll end up with others NGOs keeping close tabs on the FLA, in a dynamic of competitive legitimacy.  Not everyone will be pleased with the audit process or results, but if they pass muster with the major human rights groups, that should prove their value.  Apple is feeling the heat from consumers; with the Jobs magic no more, they’ll have to play ball.  In the global economy, consumers have power.

In any case, there’s no real alternative.  Governments just aren’t up to this kind of global regulation anymore – China’s got little incentive, and the US and others lack the capacity (as if even in ideal circumstances public regulation is seamless and free of corruption!).  Public international regimes are too immature, though they may in the long run emerge as host to these standards.

In the meantime, following Apple’s lead, there will be pressure on other electronics giants to sign on. We might witness a kind of cascade in which the codes achieve the sort of refinement (see the FLA code and accompanying “benchmarks” here) and higher profile that makes them look and feel more like law.

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Rhodri Williams

“The problem with the F.L.A. is that it lives by rules set up by the companies itself,”

True enough – but try substituting ‘human rights’ for ‘the FLA’ and ‘states’ for ‘companies’ (and rewinding to 1948). A lot of commentators have argued that states never would have signed onto the UDHR (and the subsequent Covenants) if they had any idea what they were letting themselves in for. In this sense, an optimistic view is that Apple has just signed a blank check. Its up to advocates, consumers and those directly affected by Apple’s production process to do the rest.