updated 11:00 am EST, Wed February 22, 2012
Workers reassigned, given unusual privileges
Underage Foxconn workers were transferred to other departments or not scheduled to work overtime in advance of inspections by the Fair Labor Association, an activist group tells AppleInsider. Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior project officer Debby Sze Wan Chan says that last week, she heard from two Foxconn workers in Zhenghou who said the company prepared itself before the FLA arrived. "All underage workers, between 16-17 years old, were not assigned any overtime work and some of them were even sent to other departments," Chan claims.
A worker in Chengdu reportedly said she was recently allowed three breaks a day because of the audit, whereas normally she would only get one. Apple's code of conduct technically allows workers as young as 16 or 17, but only with limits to how much they can work, and what jobs they're assigned. During its own 2011 audits the company is said to have caught six active and 13 historical incidents of underage workers in five different supplier factories.
Before FLA inspections began, organization president Auret van Heerden initially claimed that Foxconn facilities were "first-class," later amending his statement to say that "tons of issues" existed. SACOM's Chan says that many Foxconn workers think Apple doesn't care about them, since representatives have allegedly seeing labor violations during tours but failed to respond. Told about an internal Apple memo in which CEO Tim Cook claimed the company cares about "every worker in [the] supply chain," the Foxconn workers reportedly answered that they didn't feel it.
"Most of the time, the workers are aware of the presence of Apple's representatives inside the factories. It is not the problem that Apple doesn't know the real problems at their suppliers. They know, but it is only because they do not care," Chan remarks. She hopes that Cook will manage to improve supplier labor standards, but says she is skeptical of whether he has "any commitments to do so."
SACOM has organized a petition calling for Apple to "end the use of student workers; provide a living wage for all the workers so they do not have to work excessive overtime hours; conduct labour rights training for workers, including training on occupational health and safety; facilitate the formation of a genuine trade union through democratic election; and compensate the victims if there is non-compliance with the Apple code of conduct." Chan notes that she has tried to contact the company for two years without a response, even going so far as to visit its Cupertino headquarters to deliver reports, petition cards, and documentaries. A receptionist is said to have refused to take SACOM material. "Finally, a security guard tried to disperse us and he promised that he would hand the materials to someone in charge, but I haven't heard from them since then," Chan adds. On Tuesday SACOM protesters tried to deliver a SumOfUs petition to the Hong Kong Apple Store, but unlike a similar effort in the US, no one at the store would take it.
Chan says that the CNN and New York Times stories that sparked closer attention to Apple suppliers are "quite similar" to her own organization's findings. "The workers always tell us they resemble machines," she comments in light of trips to Foxconn's Chengdu plant. "Their regular day at Foxconn is waking up, queuing up for baths and work, work and go back to the dormitory and sleep. They do not have a social life and they are doing the same monotonous task in the factory for thousands of times a day. If they are not efficient enough or they make some mistakes, they will be yelled at by their supervisor or punished."
Chan accuses mainstream media outlets of omitting a key issue, that being involuntary labor. Local Chinese governmental departments are said to provide recruitment help for Foxconn, even requiring schools to send students over for internships regardless of a connection with the students' disciplines.
A recent pay hike still isn't enough for a livable wage, Chan goes on. "In Zhengzhou, the basic salary of new workers is CNY 1350 ($214). And there is a deduction of CNY 150 ($24) for the dorm. If a worker eats inside the factory, there is another CNY 200-300 ($32-48) to pay. It is far from the living wage standard. Without overtime premiums, a worker can hardly support his/herself."
She concedes that many factory jobs may be better than the opportunities in workers' hometowns, but argues that this doesn't give companies an excuse to violate workers' rights. She observes that HP, Dell, Nokia, Samsung and Sony also use Foxconn services, and that for the most part conditions across production lines are "quite similar." Workers say that Nokia, though, is good enough to guarantee Foxconn employees at least one day off per week, whereas other lines may only provide one day off every two weeks.
"I think the pressure from consumers is definitely the most important incentive for Apple to reform because Apple, like any other corporation, aims to maximize the profits and minimize the responsibility," Chan states. "If there is no pressure from consumers then Apple does not need to care about criticism from the public. Apple has its code of conduct, but that is merely a piece of paper without a mechanism to enforce those standards. When we demand that Apple should fix the problem, it's not just because Apple is under the spotlight, but it's also because we hope to hold Apple accountable because the company has publicly pledged lots of things, like that they will ensure decent working conditions at its suppliers."