by Debby Chan
Owing to escalating pressure on Apple from consumers, computer giant Apple Inc. recently purchased a membership in the Fair Labour Association (FLA). The group began factory inspections at Apple suppliers last week. After one week of research, on 15 February, the president of the FLA, Auret van Heerden, praised the working conditions at Foxconn as “better than average”. He suggested that the recent rash of worker suicides at Foxconn could be attributed to “boredom and alienation,” which are not considered labour rights violations. Today, the FLA contradicts its previous statement and announces that “tons of issues” are uncovered at Foxcon but doesn’t give any details. Both these statements make SACOM question the FLA’s ability to carry out a serious independent investigation. The FLA seems to be trumpeting the positive aspects of Foxconn and putting its labour rights abuses in undertones.
Since 2008, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has been monitoring the working conditions at Foxconn. And SACOM has found systematic labour rights violations in the company, including involuntary labour, negligence in work safety and excessive overtime. Disappointingly, FLA has avoided these problems. The recent statements from the FLA demonstrate that its audits represent merely a cosmetic effort to cover up Apple’s unethical labour practices, rather than a real commitment to decent working conditions.
Problems at Apple suppliers are well-acknowledged
In fact, Apple does not need to join the FLA to uncover the problems at its suppliers. According to Apple’s latest supplier responsibility report, the company conducted 229 audits throughout its supply chain last year, before joining the FLA. Foxconn workers in Chengdu have confirmed to SACOM that Apple representatives always come to the production lines. It is evident that Apple has known about the labour rights abuses at its suppliers, for years, but did not care about them. At this point, to rectify the labour rights abuses, the questions Apple should be asking are not “do we have labour violations?” but “when and how are we going to fix the unethical labour practices?”
SACOM has been tracking the working conditions at Foxconn and has repeatedly demanded Apple to rectify the following problems:
- Use of involuntary labour: To maintain the stability of the workforce and to meet production demands during the peak season, Foxconn hires tens of thousands student “interns”. The so-called “internship” is bogus as it has no relevance to the students’ studies. If students refuse to work at Foxconn, they are threatened with not being permitted to graduate from school. The use of student workers is definitely a form of involuntary labour.
- Extremely hazardous environment: In May 2011, a deadly explosion occurred in the polishing department of Foxconn’s Chengdu factory. Four workers died and 18 were injured. The explosion was triggered by combustible aluminium dust, a hazard that can be averted with an adequate ventilation system. Apple did not disclose the cause of the explosion or the number of causalities until January 2012. The aluminium dust was a long-standing problem in the department, but Apple claims to have become aware of it only after the tragedy. Of the Foxconn workers who have been interviewed by SACOM in the past 2 years, none has known the names of the chemicals they used, nor do they know the ingredients or the potential harms the chemicals can cause. Workers’ only choices when they suffer from skin allergies, difficulty breathing, or other symptoms of occupational diseases are to resign or to live with the problems.
- Excessive overtime: The basic salary at Foxconn is far below the living wage. Workers need to do overtime in order to earn enough to live on. However, overtime work is not entirely voluntary, especially during the peak season. Without permission from supervisors, not working the overtime shift is regarded as a work stoppage and arbitrary punishments are imposed.
Foxconn has prepared for the audits
FLA stated that Foxconn was cooperating fully with the audit, Foxconn workers in Zhengzhou, who produced iPhones told the opposite. Underage workers, 16-17 years old, who used to work from 8am to 8pm a day, are not assigned any overtime work due to the FLA audit. Moreover, Foxconn workers have experienced factory inspections for years. They do not have confidence in these inspections because they have observed no significant changes. The FLA, instead of showing that it is interested in doing better than past inspectors and making real improvements, is already making unwarranted statements that put its credibility in question. As such, workers believe the FLA audits are no different from the previous ones.
SACOM has never trusted that factory inspections alone can improve working conditions. Apple and FLA should not divert public attention with superficial audits, but instead address the issues of abuse of student workers, poor work safety, and excessive overtime immediately and carry out a remedial action plan. More importantly, to ensure decent working conditions at Apple suppliers, a genuine workers representative system is indispensable. The inclusion of workers in the monitoring of conditions and mediation of disputes is the greatest safeguard for lasting change. Apple and FLA should facilitate democratic elections at Foxconn’s trade unions, in accordance with the Chinese Trade Union Law, without delay.
About SACOM: Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) is based in Hong Kong. SACOM aims at bringing concerned students, scholars, labour activists, and consumers together to advocate for workers’ rights. We believe that the most effective means of monitoring is to collaborate closely with workers at the workplace level. We team up with labour NGOs to provide in-factory training to workers in South China. Through democratic elections, we support worker-based committees that can represent the voices of the majority of workers.
Sze Wan Debby Chan is Project Officer at SACOM (Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior).