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Regulate the Rotten Apples: The Need for a New 'Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act'

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The announcement by Apple to anoint an industry-funded watchdog organization to conduct "voluntary audits" of its assembly operations is a step in the right direction, but it falls woefully short of meaningful oversight of its global supply chain. Rather than hoping that Apple will, out the goodness of its core, regulate itself, what are needed are more robust measures to force Apple and other global manufacturers to treat their workers with dignity and to respect the environment -- or face the consequences. Better regulation of the global supply chain should lift all ships by protecting jobs in both exporting and importing countries.

Because its decision is voluntary, Apple can just as easily reverse course and dismiss the findings of the industry-funded monitoring group, the Fair Labor Association. Not only that, the decision to restrict the inspections to its "final assembly suppliers" -- most likely those in China, Malaysia, and Singapore -- omits Apple's other facilities which may be located in "India, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Slovakia, Thailand, the Philippines," and many other countries, according to a list compiled by journalist Elizabeth Grossman. And, as she pointed out in a January 2012 article, many of the 156 companies Apple acknowledges as its suppliers, "have suppliers of their own."

On a reporting trip last year, I saw for myself last year the limitations of Apple's voluntary measures. Workers from a factory in Suzhou, in eastern China, told me they had been poisoned by chemicals used in the assembly of iPhone touch screens. Apple claimed to have resolved the problem after hearing about it in 2010. But workers I met in a crowded company dormitory building said they continued to suffer. "We made iPhones with our health," one man said.

Apple's prominence makes it an easy target and a fitting symbol. But the fact is that global production and efficient transportation give the upper hand to all corporate scofflaws. Apple's size makes it exceptional, but it is only one of countless transnational companies which are able to choose efficiency and lower prices over employee rights and environmental protections.

What needs to be done is a measure that seems straightforward, but is politically fraught. The United States and other developed countries need laws similar to ones introduced five and six years ago in the U.S. entitled: "The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act." Those proposals, which died in committee two years running, targeted foreign sweatshops. One of its sponsors, Democrat Sherrod Brown (in 2006, a member of the House of Representatives, now the senior Senator from Ohio) described it this way: "The bill is simple. It bars the importation or the sale of goods made with sweatshop labor."

What's "sweatshop labor?" Reasonable minds may differ. Standards would need to be hammered out. At the very least, a reasonable bill would bar the importing of goods whose production along the supply chain complies with the local applicable labor laws. Manufacturers and suppliers should also have to meet local environmental regulations. These are low bars, because standards vary so much from one country to another. But such an import law, if properly enforced, would have the effect of improving working conditions and environmental compliance in exporting countries. It would distribute the responsibility among manufacturers, suppliers, importers, exporters, and governments. And by addressing the corporate "race to the bottom," it would have the added benefit of helping to reverse the devastating effects of offshoring and outsourcing. As then-Rep. Sherrod Brown put it in 2006: "It is our job here in Congress to provide a level playing field for U.S. workers, to help those small manufacturers, to help those workers, to help those families, to help those communities and provide decent working conditions for workers here and abroad."

Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. He is the author of 'Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration' (Wiley).