By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
February 20, 2012

Nightline to air its special after the kids are asleep Tuesday at 11:35 p.m. ET and PT

Four years ago, when I first starting writing about Foxconn, it was almost impossible to get a photo of the factory workers who assemble 40% of the world’s electronic devices.

Now, 18 suicides, two fatal explosions, an off-Broadway show and a New York Times exposé later, Foxconn has opened the factory where Apple’s (AAPL) iPads are made to a senior ABC correspondent and a Nightline camera crew.

The result — a TV special called “iFactory: Inside Apple” — will air well past prime-time Tuesday night. But on Monday ABC’s Bill Weir posted a long write-up of his findings that, knowing the exigencies of commercial television, may well offer more detail than the edited video.

Despite fears that any report by ABC, whose Disney (DIS) chairman sits on Apple’s board, would be a whitewash, Weir is pretty blunt about what he found: work of “soul-crushing boredom and deep fatigue” and crowded living conditions few Americans would put up with.

He also makes it clear that Foxconn’s sudden openness is no accident. Among the details in his reporter’s notebook:

  • The Fair Labor Association had been trying to get Apple to let it inspect the factories for five years. Apple finally joined the FLA on Jan. 16, eight days before the New York Times ran its series on Foxconn’s labor practices.
  • When Apple first called ABC, Weir assumed the FLA audit he was going to film would include a surprise inspection. “But Foxconn,” he writes, “has known for days that we were coming and in fact helped us get Chinese visas.”
  • A Foxconn executives tells Weir what by now is quite obvious: “Nightline probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the deadly explosions and suicides.”

Weir adds that Apple may be Foxconn’s most famous customer, but its Chinese factories also churns out products for Sony (SNE), Dell (DELL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), I.B.M. (IBM), Motorola (MMI), Toshiba and other major brands, “keeping the details of each production line wrapped in total secrecy.”

Below: ABC’s video teaser. The Nightline special is scheduled to air Tuesday night at 11:35 p.m. ET and PT.

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