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Audit of Apple’s Chinese Factories Reveals Bandaid Reforms

Apple wants you to know it’s working hard to fix the biggest bruise on its reputation: the treatment of workers in its vast production chain. But the changes are mostly cosmetic.


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times , the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times ' weekly updates .

Apple wants you to know it’s working hard to fix the biggest bruise on its reputation: the treatment of workers in its vast production chain. So for the past several months, the company has partnered with the Fair Labor Association, a mainstream watchdog group, to audit factory conditions at Apple's most notorious supplier company, Foxconn. FLA says in its  "remediation verification" report that Foxconn has tightened oversight of its ultra-efficient machine.

But the changes have mostly aimed to clean up some of the excesses of Apple's labor system without shifting its fundamental structure.

The FLA  audited three of the Taiwan-based company’s facilities, Guanlan, Longhua and Chengdu, and called for 360 remedial actions, 284 of which had been officially completed by the factories as of the end of May. The remaining 76 actions are due by July 2013. The report highlighted progress on regulation of the company's internship program and reforms on workplace health and safety (responding to  longstanding controversy over stressful working conditions that activists blame for mental despair and several worker suicides).

Many physical changes to improve worker health and safety have been made since the investigation, including the enforcement of ergonomic breaks, changing the design of workers’ equipment to guard against repetitive stress injuries, updating of maintenance policies to ensure equipment is working properly, and testing of emergency protective equipment like eyewashes and sprinklers. Foxconn has also engaged consultants to provide health and safety training for all employees.

However, even with these changes, the core of Foxconn's labor problems remains unresolved: the tension between workers' economic desperation and their need for basic protections from exploitation. In part, this is because neither the FLA nor even Apple can fully address the underlying forces that push workers to insane levels of production. Although  labor unrest has intensified in recent years, there currently is no institutional counterweight in the Chinese labor force--no government regulator, international monitor, or union that will  hold the line on workers rights against the pressure of global consumerism.

The Hong Kong-based rights group  Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) warned that “most of the actions completed by Foxconn are changes at the policy level only, but few substantial changes in labour practices were found at this stage.

FLA admits one of the “most challenging” reform issues at Foxconn's facilities (which collectively employ some 178,000 workers) is the tension between the need for a sustainable income and the right to humane working hours. FLA has  set a goal for factories to eventually comply with “the Chinese legal limit of 40 hours per week plus an average of 9 hours of overtime per week" while still "protecting worker pay.” SACOM’s independent investigations suggest that workers regularly face pressure to work well beyond 60 hours. (Patterns of abuses at Foxconn have been well documented by watchdogs,  despite the controversy sparked by fictionalized accounts by dramatist MIke Daisey.) 

According to a  SACOM report published earlier this year on Foxconn workers in Zhengzhou and Shenzhen, a woman working at the Longhua campus refused overtime work on a Saturday and paid a heavy cost:

Her supervisor did not approve it, but Chen did not go to work on that day. She was asked to move 3,000 boxes a day during the work shift as punishment. The punishment lasted for 10 days. On the first day, she suffered from backache and could not sleep at all.

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