Audit of Apple’s Chinese Factories Reveals Bandaid Reforms

Michelle Chen

Apple has changed the way their production facilities are run, but the reforms only go so deep.

Apple wants you to know it’s work­ing hard to fix the biggest bruise on its rep­u­ta­tion: the treat­ment of work­ers in its vast pro­duc­tion chain. So for the past sev­er­al months, the com­pa­ny has part­nered with the Fair Labor Asso­ci­a­tion, a main­stream watch­dog group, to audit fac­to­ry con­di­tions at Apple’s most noto­ri­ous sup­pli­er com­pa­ny, Fox­conn. FLA says in its reme­di­a­tion ver­i­fi­ca­tion” report that Fox­conn has tight­ened over­sight of its ultra-effi­cient machine.

But the changes have most­ly aimed to clean up some of the excess­es of Apple’s labor sys­tem with­out shift­ing its fun­da­men­tal structure.

The FLA audit­ed three of the Tai­wan-based company’s facil­i­ties, Guan­lan, Longhua and Cheng­du, and called for 360 reme­di­al actions, 284 of which had been offi­cial­ly com­plet­ed by the fac­to­ries as of the end of May. The remain­ing 76 actions are due by July 2013. The report high­light­ed progress on reg­u­la­tion of the com­pa­ny’s intern­ship pro­gram and reforms on work­place health and safe­ty (respond­ing to long­stand­ing con­tro­ver­sy over stress­ful work­ing con­di­tions that activists blame for men­tal despair and sev­er­al work­er suicides).

Many phys­i­cal changes to improve work­er health and safe­ty have been made since the inves­ti­ga­tion, includ­ing the enforce­ment of ergonom­ic breaks, chang­ing the design of work­ers’ equip­ment to guard against repet­i­tive stress injuries, updat­ing of main­te­nance poli­cies to ensure equip­ment is work­ing prop­er­ly, and test­ing of emer­gency pro­tec­tive equip­ment like eye­wash­es and sprin­klers. Fox­conn has also engaged con­sul­tants to pro­vide health and safe­ty train­ing for all employees.

How­ev­er, even with these changes, the core of Fox­con­n’s labor prob­lems remains unre­solved: the ten­sion between work­ers’ eco­nom­ic des­per­a­tion and their need for basic pro­tec­tions from exploita­tion. In part, this is because nei­ther the FLA nor even Apple can ful­ly address the under­ly­ing forces that push work­ers to insane lev­els of pro­duc­tion. Although labor unrest has inten­si­fied in recent years, there cur­rent­ly is no insti­tu­tion­al coun­ter­weight in the Chi­nese labor force – no gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tor, inter­na­tion­al mon­i­tor, or union that will hold the line on work­ers rights against the pres­sure of glob­al consumerism.

The Hong Kong-based rights group Stu­dents and Schol­ars Against Cor­po­rate Mis­be­hav­ior (SACOM) warned that most of the actions com­plet­ed by Fox­conn are changes at the pol­i­cy lev­el only, but few sub­stan­tial changes in labour prac­tices were found at this stage.”

FLA admits one of the most chal­leng­ing” reform issues at Fox­con­n’s facil­i­ties (which col­lec­tive­ly employ some 178,000 work­ers) is the ten­sion between the need for a sus­tain­able income and the right to humane work­ing hours. FLA has set a goal for fac­to­ries to even­tu­al­ly com­ply with the Chi­nese legal lim­it of 40 hours per week plus an aver­age of 9 hours of over­time per week” while still pro­tect­ing work­er pay.” SACOM’s and oth­er groups’ inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tions sug­gest that work­ers have reg­u­lar­ly faced pres­sure to work well beyond 60 hours. (Pat­terns of abus­es at Fox­conn have been well doc­u­ment­ed by watch­dogs, despite the con­tro­ver­sy sparked by fic­tion­al­ized accounts by drama­tist Mike Daisey.) 

Accord­ing to a SACOM report pub­lished ear­li­er this year on Fox­conn work­ers in Zhengzhou and Shen­zhen, a woman work­ing at the Longhua cam­pus refused over­time work on a Sat­ur­day and paid a heavy cost:

Her super­vi­sor did not approve it, but Chen did not go to work on that day. She was asked to move 3,000 box­es a day dur­ing the work shift as pun­ish­ment. The pun­ish­ment last­ed for 10 days. On the first day, she suf­fered from back­ache and could not sleep at all.

And since the vol­ume of work is a func­tion of both hours and wages, nom­i­nal pro­tec­tions” lim­it­ing hours may cut deep into income unless they come with a com­pa­ra­ble pay raise. SACOM activist Deb­by Chan told In These Times that over­time is an indis­pens­able sup­ple­ment to mea­ger incomes:

As the basic salary of Fox­conn is not suf­fi­cient for liv­ing, work­ers always yearn to have over­time work so they can have a high­er income from the over­time pre­mi­ums. … SACOM [repeat­ed­ly] demands Fox­conn pro­vide a liv­ing wage for work­ers so they don’t have to work exces­sive overtime.

Recent­ly ZDNet report­ed that due to antic­i­pat­ed reduc­tion of hours, some Fox­conn work­ers may sim­ply switch to new jobs at one of the count­less oth­er com­pa­nies with­out such restrictions.

The New York-based advo­ca­cy group Chi­na Labor Watch argued that con­dens­ing sched­ules per the FLA report has increased the inten­si­ty of the hourly work”:

Accord­ing to our fol­low-up inves­ti­ga­tion, the work­ers have to com­plete the work­load of 66 hours before with­in 60 hours now per week. As a result, the work­ers get low­er wages but have to work much hard­er and they are not sat­is­fied with the cur­rent situation.

In a fol­low-up cor­re­spon­dence with In These Times, CLW Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Li Qiang said, The fac­to­ry is trans­fer­ring the cost onto the work­ers. Those fac­tors caused the resign­ing of the workers.”

More­over, FLA’s mon­i­tor­ing cov­ers a tiny sam­ple of the Fox­conn-Apple empire. CLW, which has inves­ti­gat­ed var­i­ous Apple-affil­i­at­ed man­u­fac­tur­ers besides Fox­conn, notes that It is Apple’’s entire sup­ply chain sys­tem that should be [held] respon­si­ble for the squeez­ing of workers.”

So if Apple is unwill­ing to fun­da­men­tal­ly revamp its whole sup­ply chain, and Fox­conn is tweak­ing fac­to­ry con­di­tions but not the wage sys­tem, where will the solu­tion come from? Per­haps some­one should ask Fox­conn work­ers them­selves: Do they need a rep­re­sen­ta­tive body (not the Par­ty-run union appa­ra­tus) that allows work­ers to advo­cate for them­selves, set the terms of their labor, give them free­dom to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain for mean­ing­ful reforms with­out sac­ri­fic­ing pre­cious income? Fox­conn work­ers still lack a tru­ly inde­pen­dent, work­er-led labor union. Accord­ing to SACOM’s research, there is an over­all lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between labor and man­age­ment, and work­ers are kept in the dark about the company’s reme­di­al action plan.”

SACOM argues, Fac­to­ry inspec­tion alone can­not elim­i­nate labour rights vio­la­tions. A demo­c­ra­t­ic trade union trust­ed by work­ers is the most sus­tain­able solu­tion towards decent work­ing conditions.” 

The best fac­to­ry inspec­tors may be the work­ers them­selves: After all, they toil on the assem­bly line all day, not just dur­ing spot checks. They know when they’re denied breaks or short­ed on wages, and they’re experts on the fine dis­tinc­tion between work and exploita­tion. All they need is the pow­er to call their boss out.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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