New evidence of disturbing working conditions in iPhone production

“It is disappointing that no matter how advanced the technology introduced by Apple is, the old problems in working conditions remain at its major supplier Foxconn.” — SACOM, Sept. 20, 2012

In Sept. 2012, researchers from the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) conducted off-site interviews at Foxconn’s plants in Zhengzhou, China; the sole product of these plants is the iPhone. SACOM just released the findings of its interviews, New iPhone, Old Abuses: Have Working Conditions at Foxconn in China Improved? The report (sometimes quoted verbatim below) indicates:

  • Overtime work is excessive, and well above that permitted by Chinese law. Monthly overtime hours have been between 80–100 hours in some of the production lines. This is two to three times the amount (36 hours) allowed by Chinese law. Workers often only get one day off every 13 days.
  • Overtime work is often unpaid. Workers have to attend the daily work assembly meeting without payment. Also, on some production lines, workers must reach their work quota before they can stop working even if that means working overtime without pay.
  • Needed ergonomic breaks are not provided. The demanding work for long hours underscores the need for ergonomic breaks, and Foxconn and Apple have promised two daily ergonomic breaks for workers.  SACOM, however, found that most of the interviewees do not receive any ergonomic breaks.
  • Much of the workforce has been arbitrarily relocated. In the rush to complete iPhone 5 orders, Foxconn is relocating workers from other provinces to the Zhengzhou factories. Workers may not have a choice in these transfers, do not always know how long they are going to stay in Zhengzhou, and sometimes have to stay long past the promised time.
  • The working conditions may be unsafe. Workers such as those assembling iPhone cameras must use harsh chemicals that give off a noxious odor that they can smell even through their face masks. The workers are concerned that these chemicals may be toxic.
  • Worker strikes can mean dismissal. Workers have responded with a series of strikes. In one very recent example, workers who went on strike were simply dismissed by Foxconn.

It bears emphasizing that the portrait painted by this SACOM report differs significantly from the Fair Labor Association’s interim progress report at Foxconn released in August. For instance, the FLA reports that no Foxconn employees now work more than 60 hours a week, but the SACOM results indicate otherwise. Similarly, the FLA reports that Foxconn employees receive regular ergonomic breaks at Foxconn’s Guanlan factory; SACOM found otherwise at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou’s factories.

The differences could be explained by Foxconn only making reforms where the FLA is investigating, or by the possibility that reforms put in place during non-peak periods (which is when the FLA investigation occurred) are not remaining in place during peak periods, when production demands rise. The possible backsliding during the peak period is also consistent with other reports that Foxconn is using coerced student labor to meet production demands (see this New York Times story). More generally, the SACOM report is consistent with this previous EPI and Worker Rights Consortium blog post, which finds that notwithstanding some of the rosy language in the FLA interim report, significant labor rights violations continue at Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier in China.

Apple remains culpable in this unacceptable situation. As SACOM’s report observes:

“It is ironic that Apple declared to the world that it would ensure that working hours and other working conditions would be improved, but would then push its major supplier Foxconn, and consequently its workers, to meet product schedules inconsistent with such improvements.”