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Audit of Apple’s Chinese Factories Reveals Bandaid Reforms

3:22 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Originally posted at In These Times

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. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Activists Peer into Shadows of Apple’s Factory Empire

7:20 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: MakeITfair campaign, via flickr

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Our gadgets and tablets make our lives easier, but those palm-sized miracles of convenience are built by hard work in a metastasizing 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 recentlypartnered with the much-hyped Fair Labor Association to beef up its internal labor monitoring. Read the rest of this entry →

Apple’s Two Faces: Power Gaps Between Brazil and China Foxconn Workers

5:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Activists pass out literature detailing Apple's connection to Foxconn. (MakeITFair)

Apple presides over a global technology empire, but the economic landscapes it shapes around the world are strangely uneven. With its hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide, Apple’s manufacturing partner Foxconn works very differently in two hemispheres of the Global South.

The think tank Economic Policy Institute recently hosted a forum to discuss a tale of two Foxconns: between Foxconn and Apple workers in China and Brazil, the contrast is as crisp as a touchscreen icon.

According to EPI, Chinese workers at Foxconn in Shenzhen earn less than US $290 per month, while in Brazil the basic monthly wage is about twice that. A maximum work week for Chinese workers, in theory (though employers regularly violate labor laws), can be up to 60 to 70 hours per week, with five days vacation after a year. Work weeks for Brazilian employees are capped at 44 hours, with 30 days of paid vacation, plus other perks like a profit-sharing deal for workers.

Clearly, some of the differences can be attributed to regional economic disparities, but Brazil and China are often seen as twin examples of “emerging economies.” So why would employees of the same company fare so differently?
Read the rest of this entry →

Even With Daisey’s Lies Peeled Away, Apple’s Rotten Core Exposed

7:55 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Activists pass out literature detailing Apple's connection to Foxconn. (MakeITFair)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Apple’s brand glared in the media spotlight this past week, after the public learned that performance artist Mike Daisey’s theatrical rendering of the struggles of Apple factory workers contained false claims—painfully exposed on an episode of the radio program This American Life. But if one fundamental truth has emerged from the scandal surrounding Daisey’s dramatic fudging, it’s that the lived reality of many Chinese workers is undoubtedly bleak—no embellishment needed.

Daisey’s personal account is gratuitously peppered with fabrications, but the story of systematic exploitation is essentially true. For years various watchdog groups have tried to hold Apple accountable for harsh working conditions in China, which have been linked to workplace-related suicides and health hazards. Since a number of young workers killed themselves in 2010, the consumer advocacy campaign Make IT Fair, together with the Hong Kong-based Students Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), have documented systematic abuses: exhausting hours, an oppressive, militaristic workplace culture and, despite conciliatory pay hikes, extremely low wages in comparison to the tremendous corporate profits and brutal working conditions.

It should be noted, however, that Daisey’s “dramatic license” was debunked largely through the real findings of intrepid investigations by advocates and professional reporters, which some commentators have highlighted amid the media fallout. As part of its “Retraction” episode, in fact, TAL interviewed New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg about the real story behind Daisey’s fictions.

On the reported widespread violations of a 60-hour weekly cap on working hours, Duhigg tells host Ira Glass, Apple claims workers volunteer for this excess work:

Duhigg: They say, “Look, one of the reasons why there is so much overtime that’s inappropriate and, in some places, is illegal, is because the workers themselves are demanding that overtime.”

Now, workers don’t always say that. What workers often say is that they feel coerced into doing overtime, that if they didn’t do overtime when it’s asked of them, that they wouldn’t get any overtime at all, and that financially they would suffer as a result.

This is the kind of more nuanced, day-to-day exploitation that Foxconn workers face–not so sensational, but nonetheless driven by global economic forces. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Campaign Calls on Olympic Brand Companies to Play Fair

6:53 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Olympic product factory worker in China (Play Fair 2012)

Cross-posted at In These Times

The world’s greatest games are about to begin in London. But outside the sporting spectacle this summer, few will notice where the real cheating is going on: in Asian factories that churn out plush mascots and other Olympiad gear, corporations have freely exploited lax labor regulations. As the Olympics approach, activists are racing to push the brands behind the games to play by the rules of fair trade and human rights.

Trying to avoid an instant replay of London’s age of imperialism, the Play Fair 2012 campaign aims for accountability and transparency in the corporations scoring massive profits from cheap labor in the global south.

The campaign got a boost recently when organizers of the London Games agreed to take measures to uphold labor standards in the supply chain for Olympic paraphernalia. The agreement came in response to pressure from unions and other activist groups, who published a scathing report on the industry that churns out piles of fluffy “Wenlock and Mandeville” mascots, badges, keychains and other Olympic swag. The report, which investigated two Chinese factories producing London-2012 gear, depicts a global sweatshop on steroids:

as the demand for consumer merchandise mounts in the build up to the Olympics, workers must work excessively long hours of overtime, for very little pay, in often dangerous and exhausting working environments, with employers showing little regard for internationally recognised labour standards or national laws. Read the rest of this entry →

After Tragedy, Apple Tries to Polish Image on Workers’ Rights

5:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Anti-Foxconn protest in Hong Kong (iworld.com.my)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Apple’s trademark is the intuitive elegance of its designs. Yet when it comes corporate and labor practices, Apple’s track record looks like a morass of obfuscation and murky public-relations smokscreens. So activists seeking a more user-friendly Apple on the human rights front should welcome the company’s new “Supplier Responsibility” report.

But the results of 229 documented audits display the troubling gap between its slick modern ethos and grim working conditions in its supply chain. Reuters reports:

The audit found a number of violations, among them breaches in pay, benefits and environmental practices in plants in China, which figured prominently throughout the 500-page report Apple issued. Other violations found in the audit included dumping wastewater onto a neighboring farm, using machines without safeguards, testing workers for pregnancy and falsifying pay records.

The “Supplier responsibility progress report” also found that “67 facilities had docked worker pay as a disciplinary measure.” The company states it is continually working to deal with violations of overtime and child labor.

The report’s admission of several cases of underage workers at some component suppliers bolsters the anecdotal evidence presented dramatically in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” in which performer Mike Daisey recalls encountering underage workers at an Apple supplier facility in Shenzhen.

Apple has come under fire over its connection to Foxconn, a Taiwan-based manufacturer that employs tens of thousands in  fortress-like facilities–a crucial part of the supply chain for iPhones and other high-profile products. These workers are typically young migrants from more rural areas, who are willing to brave long hours and paltry wages in mechanical, hyper-efficient assembly lines.

But something cracked in 2010, and a series of harrowing suicides–workers flinging themselves from buildings–got consumers around the world talking about whether their gadget obsession was complicit in pushing workers to the brink. Read the rest of this entry →

Will Peasants and Migrant Workers Forge China’s New Political Vanguard?

10:01 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Wukan protests (Image via Chinahush.com)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

China is no longer a sleeping giant. The past few months have seen riots, strikes, and peasant clashes with police. If you lay out all these incidents on a map, you get more than a random data cloud; you see a slow seismic shift in a society of contrasts, where boundaries of class and power are being constantly redrawn.

The most high-profile uprising of recent weeks is the revolt in the Guangdong village of Wukan. Peasants began protesting to defend their land rights, accusing officials of handing over land to developers and bilking farmers out of millions of dollars worth of real estate.

By December, as with many land-rights struggles in the Global South, direct action was apparently the only leverage villagers had to push back against the local government. The death of a leading protester in police custody catalyzed their outrage, and after driving out local officials, the activists launched an ad-hoc self-governing occupation. Read the rest of this entry →

Is China’s Economic Miracle Hitting the Fan?

9:51 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: China Labor Watch

Image: China Labor Watch

Cross-posted from In These Times

If you believe the hype about living in the “Pacific Century,” then the new millennium is bound to be a pretty rowdy one.

A few days ago about 1,000 workers in the heart of China’s manufacturing belt walked off the job at the Taiwan-owned Jingmo Electronics Corporation, saying they were tired of being cheated by overtime pay. Around the same time in the Guangdong boomtown known as Dongguan, thousands of shoe factory workers protested over overtime pay and marched with their grievances to a local government office.

This may seem like a reprise of the powerful 2010 strike wave that rippled through big-name manufacturing plants, including Toyota and Honda. Last year, workers’ newfound militancy yielded some significant gains—mainly in the form of pay hikes and other concessions. But whether they’ll be able to wrest a fairer paycheck from the management this time around hinges not so much on workers’ will, as on the global economic house of cards that’s getting rocked by countless factors that the labor force can’t control. Though concessions could be coming down the pipeline for some workers, in the backdrop is an alarming slowdown in China’s exports, which drive the country’s development and stuff consumers in rich countries with an endless stream of cheap goods.

November brought news of a a sharp drop in exports to Europe, coinciding with a burgeoning financial crisis in the Eurozone, as well as premonitions that China’s housing market might soon start to go pop.

According to the watchdog organization China Labour Bulletin, the state has worked with the companies to squelch protests, and even management staff is feeling the pain:

Photographs posted online showed large numbers of police on the street and bloodied workers who claimed to have been beaten by the police. Several other workers had reportedly been detained. Read the rest of this entry →

Inside World’s Economic Engine, Young China Redefines Class Consciousness

4:32 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Robert Scoble via flickr

Cross-posted from In These Times

In every corner of the world young people are rocking their worlds, defying government crackdowns in Santiago and Sanaa, occupying beleaguered cities in America and Europe, challenging authoritarianism across the Global South. But one of the largest concentrations of youth on the planet seems relatively dormant: China’s rising generation appears, at least in the Western media lens, to be too timid, cynical, or busy making money, to take on political struggles.

But to read China’s fraught political geography, you need a long-range lens. A new report by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin tracks the nascent Chinese labor movement from 2009 through 2011, examining a pattern of conflict, organizing and advocacy, and finds the seeds of a youth-led labor movement underpinned by a sense of growing economic injustice. Communication technology, migration, creative organizing tactics, and the sheer density of the popular mass are fueling thousands of labor protests in both the public and private sectors.

Socially and geographically, mobile young workers are starting to leverage their power within the political and economic establishment, according to the report:

  • Workers are becoming more proactive They are taking the initiative and not waiting for the government or anyone else to improve their pay and working conditions.
  • The protests have created an embryonic collective bargaining system in China. The challenge now is to develop that basic model into an effective and sustainable system of collective bargaining that benefits workers, improves overall labour relations and helps achieve the Chinese government’s goals of boosting domestic consumption and reducing social disparity.
  • Their ability to organize is improving. A growing sense of unity among factory workers, combined with the use of mobile phones and social networking tools, has made it easier for workers to initiate, organize and sustain protests.
  • Worker protests are becoming more successful. Recent protests have secured substantial pay increases, forced managements to abandon unpopular and exploitative work practices, and even stalled the proposed take-over and privatization of SOEs.

Though China has earned a reputation as the world’s preeminent sweatshop, its broader economic agenda centers on turning legions of workers into vast, politically obedient, domestic consumer class. Read the rest of this entry →

Mine Workers Struggle for Safety Underground, Justice in the Streets

1:55 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

 

National Union of Mineworkers protest (libcom.org)

Cross-posted from In These Times
 

As thousands take to the streets to protest global corporate domination, the power struggles just below the earth’s surface remain outside the media spotlight. But over the past few weeks, turmoil in the mining industry has also spoken to the divide between the corporate elite and the impoverished multitudes–a faultline running through communities mired in poverty but rich in resources.

Papua’s gold battleground

In Papua, Indonesia, the American gold and copper giant Freeport McMoRan
had to shut down a facility on Monday after protesting workers set up roadblocks. The standoff at Grasberg followed a recent deadly clash between protesters and police—the culmination of an earlier strike that turned out thousands of workers demanding major wage increases. Read the rest of this entry →