by Paul Garver
Apple CEO Tim Cook visits an iPhone production line at a Foxconn facility in China in 2012. Photo: Bloomberg
Officials of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) are not in the habit of criticizing major employers.
So when at a press conference in Beijing on February 2nd, Guo Jun, director of the ACFTU’s Legal Work Department, included Foxconn Technology in a list of companies who required their employees to work excessive overtime in violation of Chinese labor law, it caused a stir in the Chinese and foreign media.
Foxconn is not a mom-and-pop company. It is the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, the largest private employer in China with 1.3 million workers, and ranks 30th on the Fortune listing of global companies by sales. It produces over half of the electronic hardware in the world for Apple, HP and all the other major global branded electronics corporations.
Five years ago, as we frequently reported in Talking Union, a dozen young workers at Foxconn’s giant assembly plant in Shenzhen ended their lives by leaping from the factory complex dormitories, protesting endless hours of mind-numbing repetitive toil. Pro-worker NGOs in Hong Kong and China leapt into action, documenting widespread abuses at Foxconn, and demanding that Apple, its largest customer, hold its supplier to improving wages and working conditions. They also pointed out that the chronic abuses at the chief supplier are a product of Apple’s squeezes and unethical buying practices, and the Chinese governments’ support to large investors, at the sacrifice of workers’ rights and even their lives. As protests spread, both in Greater China and elsewhere, Apple agreed to require inspections of three Foxconn factories (out of more than 30) in China by the Fair Labor Association(FLA) in 2012 and 2013.
More significantly Foxconn decided to locate its major new factories deeper in the interior of China where wages were lower and the supply of laborers closer to hand. Another huge factory complex was constructed in less than a year in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province), informally called iPad City for its major product. When several workers were killed by an explosion of aluminum dust caused by management negligence on 20 May 2011, security officers rushed to the hospitals to prevent any protests or media coverage. But vigilant networks of Chinese and Hong Kong students and workers publicized the event and a similar explosion at another Shanghai-based Apple supplier seven months later.
The Fair Labor Association (FLA), no doubt in good faith (though well compensated for their efforts by Apple) has reported that Foxconn and Apple are in the process of drawing up an action plan to correct the most flagrant abuses at three major Foxconn factories, including ones in Shenzhen and Chengdu. The final FLA report was completed and published online in December 2013 – it did not end serious violations such as illegal overtime; in other words, it does not go beyond good public relations for Apple. As of this writing on 10 February 2015, we were still waiting for Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Progress Report.
Unfortunately for Apple, Foxconn and the FLA a growing network of worker and student activists within China has been investigating in depth a much wider range of Foxconn facilities throughout China, and finding that excessive overtime and serious health and safety violations remain endemic. One item completely overlooked by FLA investigators was the wholesale exploitation of some 7000 “student interns” for repetitive assembly work at Chengdu, when a major order from Apple had to be quickly filled in late 2011 to early 2012 [ Aditya Charabotty, 14 October 2013, “Forced student labor is central to the Chinese economic miracle,” The Guardian]. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/14/forced-student-labour-china-apple
Beginning in the fall of 2014, Apple sales of the new iPhone 6 and iPhone6Plus surged, to reach some 74.5 million in the last quarter of 2014. Even though Foxconn is itself a highly integrated and diversified electronics manufacturer, it remains heavily dependent on Apple (for 40% of its total sales). When Apple demanded maximum production of the new iPhones at maximum speed, Foxconn responded. According to extensive reports by Shenzhen worker and student activists (on a site called in English iLabour) mandatory overtime was imposed on Foxconn assembly workers during the peak Apple season (September to December 2014) to the extent of 152 hours overtime a month on top of the standard 40 hour work week (plus 9 hours of overtime whenever appropriate). This meant on average one rest day a month (whereas at last one day of rest per week is required by law), with every other day of the month dedicated to 10 hour shifts of the most routine and monotonous assembly tasks. This far exceeds the statutory limit in Chinese law of 36 hours overtime per month.
Hence the comment by the ACFTU’s Guo Jun, who reminded Foxconn that employees forced to work excessive overtime were susceptible to psychological problems including suicide, a deliberate echo of the 2010 suicide wave.
Foxconn responded angrily on February 3rd that the workers wanted the overtime to increase their income, and that the company provided professional counseling and support services 24/7 to help workers cope with these challenges. The company claimed that these support services “are saving lives each and every day” (!). It also taunted Guo Jun for never visiting the Foxconn factories criticized by the ACFTU.
A number of activists commented that it would not be a bad idea for the ACFTU official to actually visit factories and talk to workers. What Guo Jun would find is that there is already a “union” at Foxconn, though no workers know that they are members of it. The chair of the Foxconn union, since 2007 to the present, is Ms Chen Peng, a special assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou. She was appointed as Union Chair by Foxconn managerial appointment, with no election then or since.
Quoted in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Chang Kai, a highly respected professor at Renmin University’s labor and human resources school in Beijing, remarked:
“It’s a good thing that the ACFTU showed their attitude, but it’s just the first step. Next, the union should suggest solutions. Foxconn doesn’t have a union chosen by workers at all.”
Five years on, will the ACFTU take the next step, and try to organize a real union at Foxconn?
I have made use over the last five years of extensive research conducted by SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior), a Hong Kong based NGO, in reporting on Foxconn workers in Talking Union. As background for this article, I was graciously granted access to research by Jenny Chan, Pun Ngai and Mark Selden to be published in 2015 as “Apple’s iPad City: Subcontracting the Exploitation of Labour to China.” Ch. 5 in Handbook on the International Political Economy of Global Production, edited by Kees Van Der Pijl. [Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing].