Apple Launches iPhone5 with Forced Student Labor

by Paul Garver

Photo by Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia/Creative Common

Rural American schools used to empty out for a few weeks in the fall to allow farm children to help harvest potato or fruit crops for family farmers.

The world has changed. In 2012 students are required to leave classrooms in interior Chinese cities to help with the Apple harvest – specifically to produce the Apple iPhone5, just as their predecessors did in 2011 to assemble the Apple iPhone 4S.

According to Chinese media sources, several vocational schools in the city of Huai’an in eastern China required hundreds of students to work on assembly lines at a Foxconn plant to manufacture cables for the iPhone5. Their teachers told them they would not graduate unless they worked for Foxconn, since “Foxconn does not have enough workers without the students.”

An assembly worker in Zhengzhou, where the iPhone5 is assembled, reported to China Labor Watch last month:
We are now producing the iPhone5. We 87 workers have to assemble 3,000 phones per day, and as our team leader told us, after the new iPhone goes public, we will need t assemble 6,500 phones per day. We are now working more than 10 hours a day. There are many student workers in our production line, all of whom are around 18 years old. They’ve been complaining and demanding to go back to school but are never allowed.

The recent promises Apple and Foxconn made through the audits of the Fair Labor Association to reform its brutal regime for Chinese assembly workers and student “interns” evaporated like smoke under the pressures to launch the iPhone5 as quickly as possible.


Corporate Profit Drives Trump Empty Reform Promises

From the standpoint of global corporate capital, this is totally comprehensible. After deducting about $190 for out-sourced components from around the world and another $10 for final assembly in China, each iPhone5 sold adds about $400 to Apple’s margin to pay the salaries of corporate executives, marketing, research and development costs, and send its stock price soaring far above Apple’s global competitors.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s Marketplace (11 September 2012) the $400 per iPhone5 sold may also boost the American Gross Domestic Product for the last 3 months of 2012 by an annualized rate of $12.8 billion, an increase of a third of a percentage point in GDP.

What Foxconn and Apple promised, but have not delivered

For background, see my recent article , where I had prematurely announced a tentative victory on reforming the abuse of student interns in Foxconn/Apple factories.

In 2010 and 2011 nearly 100,000 “student interns” between 16 and 18 years old supplied to Foxconn by vocational schools were required to work for Foxconn regardless of their major field of study. They were assigned to work at various mind-numbing repetitive tasks by computer (to break up groups of schoolmates). Although they receive a minimum wage (and no benefits at all since they are not covered by labor law), the student interns actually paid for the privilege of being exploited by paying school tuition and exorbitant placement fees.

The pro-worker Hong Kong-based SACOM ‘s research reports had zeroed in on the abuse of student interns. Because of this insistence, Foxconn’s policy and practices on student interns were addressed in detail in the first two audits by the Fair Labor Association. The pragmatic result was that Foxconn hired few new student interns in the summer of 2012 in the three factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu that the FLA audited, and reportedly stopped assigning them overtime.

But apparently the FLA auditors’ backs were turned when the work of manufacturing cables for, and the final assembly of the new iPhone 5 were not performed in the three factories subject to audit, but in Zhengzhou and Huai’an. Whoops!

The Foxconn/Apple reform promises to reduce the excessive length of the workweek are also proving to be vacuous. The promise was to immediately reduce the maximum hours of work to the Apple global standard of 60 per week (!), and by 2013 to the Chinese legal standard of 49 hours per week. This may reduce Foxconn’s overtime pay, but only heightens the intense pressure of repetitive and monotonous assembly work. As a worker at Zhengzhou reported to China Labor Watch :

The rate of work is intense. We workers have to complete the work load of what before was 11 hours (or sometimes up to 14 hours) in only ten hours…The break time of workers is used as time for work preparation. Also workers are kept after work to have meetings in which workers are scolded by management, the occupied time also not being calculated into wages.

We must thank the dedicated work of SACOM and China Labor Watch, and the comprehensive articles by New York Times reporters David Barboza and Charles Duhigg based on their reports, for keeping some heat on Foxconn and Apple. We may use future publication of audits by the Fair Labor Association that are likely to verify the fragmentary information supplied by Chinese workers and students on the ground.

Real and permanent reforms depend on the ability of workers to struggle for their own causes at the workplace. Unfortunately the effort by Chinese authorities to rein in the autonomous activities of pro-worker NGOs in Mainland China by raiding and closing down their Shenzhen offices is continuing, and the official trade union structures still lack the will and ability to help workers get control of management-controlled workplace “unions” at Foxconn and other manufacturers in China. Improving conditions for Chinese electronics assembly workers depends ultimately on their organizing their own self-activity, as other Chinese workers have been able to begin in the auto parts industry.

5 Responses

  1. Just to update. Read Sacom’s new and comprehensive report on the Zhengzhou factory at http://sacom.hk/archives/960 for a great example of how students can do research useful for workers.

  2. [...] harsh working conditions under which the Apple iPhone5 has been rushed into massive production at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory, where the strike just occurred.  An article posted earlier today reports on the causes of a major [...]

  3. That was an enlightening article
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