Just when you thought all of those disturbing headlines about workers making iPhones getting burned alive and whatnot, another group of reporters have found another Foxconn factory and another host of labor problems. This time the investigative team comes from a 60 Minutes-style show in France called Envoyé Spécial, and quite frankly, I wouldn't have thought they'd be able to squeeze any more outrageous findings out of this years-long story. They did. In a visit to Foxconn's Zhengzhou iPhone 5 factory within the last two months, the French reporters found hazardous living and working conditions, signs of forced labor, and no shortage of denials on Apple's part.
I'll go ahead and say it: Foxconn is never going to be a good place to work. As the world's largest electronics manufacturer, it's a massive, massive company with too many workers -- and too many hard-to-see recruiters and sub-contractors -- for regulators to ever keep track of. And as the competition in the smartphone and tablet markets become increasingly fierce, there's going to be little incentive for them to spend more money on better labor practices. That doesn't mean they can't afford it. In fact, profits at Foxconn--owned by the Taiwanese billionaire Terry Gou--were up almost 25 percent last quarter to $1.93 billion.
Things in Zhengzhou aren't as bad as they could be. Labor violations at many other Apple suppliers "in many cases, are actually significantly more dire than at Foxconn," according to a China Labor Watch report over the summer which described excessive overtime, pinpointing manufacturer Riteng, a unit of Taiwan’s Pegatron Corp, as one example. Some factories also avoid legally-required medical insurance while workers are exposed to hazardous conditions.
But the Envoyé Spécial report shows that, despite endless promises, Foxconn, the industry leader, is not improving its working conditions. In the worker dormitories, for instance, the French reporters found the buildings half-built, many of them lacking running water, electricity, and elevators. They also caught a manager on a hidden camera telling his employees not to plug things into the wall where there was power for fear that it would start an electrical fire like the one that killed eight workers there recently.
But wait. There's more. Remember the "internship" program that put underage kids on the factory floor assembling iPhones and stirred up all the awful memories of children stitching together Nikes in the '90s? Foxconn distanced themselves from the program, though the company did acknowledge that it employed students through vocational schools and recruitment programs, and promised that the students could leave anytime they want. According to the French report, though, that's not really the case. They reporters spoke to a number of students who said that their schools forced them to work at the factory, otherwise, they'd lose their diplomas. Meanwhile, workers on the factory floor were pulling 150 hours of overtime a month, sometimes working 90 days straight without a break. All for $340 a month--about the price of one iPad Mini.
Abuses by recruitment firms have also led to claims of underage labor by China Labor Watch at other manufacturers, like HTNS, which builds for smartphone giant Samsung; the company began an audit of its suppliers in September that found excess overtime, and said it was taking steps to correct labor practices and to audit an additional 144 suppliers by the end of the year.
This is a familiar narrative. Some reporters find their way into a Foxconn factory and catch some horrid working conditions on camera. They talk to some workers who inform them of oppressive management and dreadful pay. Both Apple and Foxconn say everything is going great. And you probably read all about it on shiny new iPhone 5. That narrative probably won't change until there are some categorical shifts in the manufacturing industry.
A few days ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook made headlines when he announced that, starting next year, some Macs would be assembled in the United States. This is not the type of shift that changes the game. For one, it'll only be a tiny fraction of Apple's total manufacturing, and two, most of the guts of the computer will still be built overseas in places like China. Cook also reiterated a point that he's made before and Steve Jobs made before him that American workers simply don't have the skills they need to manufacture something so sophisticated as an iPhone 5.
So like it or not, your smartphone will continue to be built by young people in China for a while. There's not much we can do about working conditions in China, becuase that's up to companies that profit from cheap labor and a government that profits from letting companies do what they want inside their borders. One thing could help: if us consumers stopped buying so many of these smartphones and computers, learned how to repair our old stuff, and started demanding something along the lines of Fair Trade electronics.
Otherwise, get used to more investigative exposées that expose what we all already knew: Foxconn is a crappy place to work, and it's not getting much better.
Image via China Digital Tmes