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Not Just Foxconn: Looking Into the Shadows of Apple's Factory Empire

Apple’s power over China’s workforce extends to many other suppliers. A new report drills down to the lesser-known plants that piece together our hand-held devices.
 
 
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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.

 Our gadgets and tablets make our lives easier, but those palm-sized miracles of convenience are built by hard work in a metastisizing global chain of low-wage labor. Apple has received much criticism lately over the exploitation of workers in China, particularly at the manufacturing behemoth Foxconn, where several worker suicides have stirred public outrage.

But Apple’s power over China’s assemblyline workforce extends to many other suppliers. A new report by China Labor Watch drills down to the lesser-known plants that piece together our hand-held devices. China Labor Watch surveyed ten factors and uncovered abuses in various aspects of production, from grinding work schedules to anemic labor protections. The findings indicate that often in these factories:

  • Employers wring every last drop of labor from workers, resulting in “excessive overtime” of roughly 100 to 130 hours per month, and up to 150 to 180 hours per month during “peak production.” On paper, there’s a legal limit in China of 36 overtime hours per month.
  • The overall basic wage is so low, compared to the local cost of living, workers have no choice but to work more hours than the legal limit, sometimes 11 hours per day, seven days a week, essentially standing in place all day except for two short meal breaks. Sometimes bosses scrimp by offering relatively small “bonuses” in lieu of the legal overtime rate.
  • Workers reported “hazardous working environments,” such as metal dust filling the air at one facilty.
  • In some cases, employers failed to provide legally mandated social  and work-injury insurance.

None of these issues are unique to Apple’s supply chain, and indeed, these multinational factory jobs are seen as attractive to struggling young workers. CLW has documented poor conditions in many other multinationals operating in China. But holding Apple to account is important for setting standards across the technology sector; not only because it’s an industry leader, but because it portrays itself as an emblem of “corporate social responsibility” and has recently partnered with the much-hyped Fair Labor Association to beef up its internal labor monitoring.

One of the key revelations of the CLW report is that it appears that some supplier companies have ample leeway to hide their labor practices by relying heavily on “dispatch” labor, which allows for short-term, minimally regulated work arrangements. According to the report, dispatched labor in China allows companies to prevent labor organizing, avoid having to provide severance pay to short-term workers, avoid overtime regulations and liability for worker injuries, and skirt requirements for paying social insurance for dispatched workers.

The ducking of labor regulations and standards mirrors the  abuse of the “contractor” label in U.S. workplaces—a tried-and-true tactic to minimize employers’ responsibilities. In China, however, workers are even more vulnerable to kind of exploitation, stuck with an opaque legal system, scrambling to avoid poverty and lacking the backing of independent unions.

Apple’s production chain is replete with this kind of labor, according to CLW, which suggests that Apple may be indirectly sweeping unsavory labor practices under the rug by ignoring many of these workers in their monitoring process. "Except for Foxconn in Shenzhen which transferred all dispatched workers to direct-hire status in 2011,” the report states, “all other investigated factories overused dispatched labor, including Jabil in Shenzhen where dispatched labor made up almost 70% of the workforce."

CLW argues that while Apple has seemingly invested major resources to enhance its auditing system, indirectly-hired employees remain a troubling blindspot:

 
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