While not as shocking as some critics predicted, a new report about working conditions at Foxconn--the Chinese factory now famous for churning out Apple products, as well as other electronics--paints a grim picture of exhausting working conditions and a disregard for workers rights.
The degree to which the report will improve workers' experiences is unclear, but it succeeds in shedding light on the often-overlooked conditions that produce affordable electronics for consumers and businesses in the United States and Western Europe. While Apple is not the only company that uses Foxconn, its iconic status has made it a focal point of recent protests.
Apple announced Feb. 13 that the Fair Labor Association (FLA) was beginning investigations into labor rights allegations launched at Foxconn, its China-based supplier largely responsible for assembling iPhones and iPads, along with a good deal of the world's consumer electronics. On March 29, the FLA released a report on its findings, following what it calls an "in-depth, top-down and bottom-up examination of the entire operation."
The FLA surveyed nearly 35,000 randomly selected Foxconn workers and logged nearly 3,000 staff hours at factories in Chengdu, Longhua and Guanlan, and what it found were "serious and pressing non-compliances with FLA's Workplace Code of Conduct, as well as Chinese labor law."
The findings were broken down into four key areas. In the first, regarding hours, Foxconn employees were found to be working so many hours, so many days in a row, that in order for Foxconn to achieve full legal compliance regarding workers' hours, while also maintaining current levels of output, Foxconn will need to hire "tens of thousands of extra workers" over the next year.
Regarding health and safety, there were particular concerns regarding aluminum dust--the cause of a fatal explosion at Foxconn's Chengdu facility in 2011--and workers, the FLA found, "felt generally insecure regarding their health and safety."
Workers also felt alienated from the factories' safety and health committees, according to a section on industrial relations and, according to a compensation section, weren't being properly paid for unscheduled overtime and in some cases weren't receiving or signing up for social security insurance. Unscheduled overtime is paid for in 30-minute increments, which means that someone who works 29 minutes isn't paid for their time at all. According to the FLA, 14 percent of the workers were unlikely to receive fair pair for unscheduled overtime.
The FLA investigation followed a series of in-depth reports from a number of media news outlets, including The New York Times and This American Life. The Times expos included interviews with workers and an account of one of two explosions in iPad factories that, together, left four people dead and 77 injured. The Times reported:
"Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors."
More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers disregard for workers health.
The This American Life report, which kick-started several petitions calling for Apple to make changes, was an excerpt from "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," a one-man show by performer Mike Daisey, who likewise traveled to China, interviewed workers and observed a number of, to say the least, wrongs.
Weeks later, it came out that Daisey had exaggerated and falsified some aspects of his story, in order to make his message more impactful. Daisey's tactics arguably left some concerned consumers unsure of what to believe a position the FLA report does much to clarify.
The FLA also left no questions about what should happen next. In its report, it includes a "detailed set of necessary remedial measures to protect the health and safety of workers, reduce worker hours to legal limits while protecting worker pay, and establish genuine avenues for workers to provide input on company decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods."