Foxconn, Apple Announce Improved Factory Conditions, Workers Not Convinced
(MintPress)-Apple supplier, Foxconn, plans to improve working conditions after a report released on Thursday by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) confirmed overworked employees and unsafe working standards in its Chinese factories.
The announcement seems to be a foot forward for Apple, which was hit with protests and petitions over inhumane working conditions at Foxconn factories that produce its products earlier this year. Yet some critics are questioning whether Foxconn’s actions will actually improve conditions for workers or possibly make things worse.
Foxconn, one of China’s biggest employers at 1.2 million mainland workers across several facilities, manufactures 40% of the world’s electronic devices including products for Apple, Microsoft, and Dell to name a few. Many workers say that compared to smaller, locally owned factories, Foxconn plants are cleaner, safer, and offer more recreation facilities.
Yet, Foxconn is not without its share of problems. In 2009, 137 employees of Foxconn subcontractor, Wintek, were poisoned by dangerous chemicals used to clean touch screens. In 2010, nearly a dozen Foxconn workers committed suicide reportedly because of harsh factory conditions. This January, around 150 Foxconn employees threatened to commit suicide if their demands for improved conditions were not met.
Worldwide outrage from Apple customers followed the most recent reports of inhumane treatment of Foxconn workers. Apple customer, Mark Shields, started an online petition with nearly 300,000 signatures, telling Apple that he wants “to know that when I buy products from you, it’s not at the cost of horrible human suffering.”
FLA Investigation Finds Direct Violations of Labor Standards
Concerned by the uproar from customers and the media, Apple launched its own investigation into the working conditions at Foxconn. Apple said in a statement, “Our team has been working for years to educate workers, improve conditions and make Apple’s supply chain a model for the industry, which is why we asked the FLA to conduct these audits. We share the FLA’s goal of improving lives and raising the bar for manufacturing companies everywhere.”
The FLA Foxconn investigative report found 50 issues, 43 of which were in direct violation of Chinese labor laws, including in the areas of health and safety, worker integration and communication, and wages and working hours
All three factories examined in the study exceeded the FLA Code Standard and the Chinese labor law for maximum limits on the total number of hours worked per week at some point in the last 12 months. Chinese law limits employees to 40 hours per week and a maximum of 36 hours of overtime each month. In Guanlan factory, almost 80% of workers exceeded overtime limits from September to January.
The FLA also reported discrepancies in overtime pay and periods during which employees worked more than seven days in a row without the required minimum 24-hour break.
Although Foxconn wages (averaging between $426 to $455 per month) are above both the Chinese average and legal minimum, surveys found that 14% of workers may not receive fair overtime compensation and 72% of workers at Chengdu factory said their salaries did not cover basic needs.
In response to the investigation, Foxconn has said that by July, 2013 it will reduce overtime hours from 80 per week to the maximum of 36 while protecting worker pay.
Realities of “Improved” Working Conditions
Foxconn is yet to reveal a plan detailing the extent to which wages will be raised or how such a transition will be implemented. However, the costs of hiring tens of thousands of new employees in addition to increased wages may cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Rob Schmitz of American Public Media reports that although Foxconn workers welcome the idea of a raise, they are not sure the company will follow through with its promises. Foxconn employees told Schmitz that they had been promised a raise in March. Hearing of the pay increase, local landlords raised rent on Foxconn workers in Shenzhen. Yet, workers never received the promised wage increase.
Lei Xibin, a Foxconn worker, told Schmitz that even with a raise workers will still lose money: “If they give us a raise, they’ll make us work less overtime. I’m from a very poor village-I came here to work overtime! When we work overtime, it’s a government rule that we receive time and a half. I’m here to make money.”
Chen Yamei, 25, a Foxconn worker from Hunan is also skeptical of the proposed hour and wage changes. Chen told Reuters, “We have just been told that we can only work a maximum of 36 hours a month of overtime. I tell you, a lot of us are unhappy with this. We think that 60 hours of overtime a month would be reasonable and that 36 hours would be too little.”
Chen’s views on overtime are not inconsistent with the 35,000 Foxconn workers surveyed by the FLA. The FLA found that 48% of workers thought that their working hours were reasonable, 33.8% would like to work more hours and make more money, and only 17.7% said they felt that they worked too much. Generally, employees working over 52 hours a week were reported to have more negative attitudes about overtime hours.
Working conditions at Foxconn may be better than most factories in the country, but better does not equate safe and just. Ricardo Ernst, professor of global logistics at Georgetown University, told the New York Times that, “At the end of the day it’s a matter of image, a matter of recognition, a matter of reputation.”
Foxconn’s announcement to improve labor standards has restored a few of the reputation points Apple has lost over the past few months. And if successful, experts like Ernst believe other companies may follow suit. However, if Foxconn does not find a way to effectively lower hours and raise wages in a way that pleases employees, Apple may find itself back under pressure from customers and workers alike.
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