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Can We Trust Foxconn’s New ‘Democratic’ Chinese Factories?

10:47 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoon Work (www.cartoonwork.com)

Originally posted at In These Times

A few years ago, the multinational tech manufacturer Foxconn, a brand previously vaunted as a symbol of China’s 21st century industrial ascent, was marred by the image of miserable young factory workers flinging themselves off of buildings. So the company rolled into damage control mode with typical efficiency: Along with emergency suicide nets installed outside dormitories came a flurry of plans for morale-boosting, like deploying therapists, monks and “2,000 singers, dancers and gym trainers” to lift spirits. At a management-sponsored pep rally, some workers were spotted in “I Love Foxconn” shirts—positive thinking through casualwear.

And now, Foxconn is rewarding that love by introducing its young, sometimes rambunctious,occasionally suicidal workforce to the virtues of workplace democracy.

The company has announced that workers will be able to vote for union representatives at their factories. The plan, according to news reports, is to allow workers to elect “junior workers” to represent them in a union leadership structure historically dominated by management and officials. In a union system closely linked to the political establishment and employers, the goal, it seems, is to keep labor relations smooth as factories churn out their signature Apple product lines.

The scene of the cheery workers wearing their love for their company on their chests is a good backdrop for evaluating the voting reforms and other efforts to improve conditions at Foxconn. What’s really helping workers? And what’s simply polishing the Foxconn’s image? Following widespread media coverage of the cluster of suicides, Foxconn and Apple have engaged in a well-publicized auditing process and vowed to raise labor standards. But despite reports showing incremental improvements in the notoriously hyper-stressful factory conditions (as well as some persistent labor violationsmany questions remain on whether these changes are really changing workers’ day-to-day lives or influencing global manufacturing standards as a whole.

Though the promise of a more direct election system at Foxconn (paralleling similar initiatives at other workplaces) suggests Foxconn is yielding to public and worker-driven pressure for a more responsive management structure, elections will not ensure equitable collective bargaining rights, and they are definitely no guarantee of genuine respect for workers’ fundamental freedom of association. Contrary to popular perceptions, many Chinese workplaces are nominally unionized, with millions of union members nationwide. The massive state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions is tasked with keeping labor roughly in line with neoliberal economic policies, though growing social unrest in recent years has heightened attention to workers’ issues in official political circles.

Historically, these official unions have acted as tools for management rather than channels for advocacy. According to a 2010 report by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, economic liberalization and whirlwind of privatization led to a transfer of union leadership from the official state to a state-friendly managerial classand workers’ hardships and disenfranchisement persisted:

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Foxconn Riot Flashes a Glimpse of China’s Slow-burning Labor Crisis

6:09 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

On September 23, in Taiyuan, China, about 2,000 workers erupted in a burst of anger, leaving a factory compound scarred with broken glass and flames. But the trouble was just as quickly extinguished, and it’s now back to business as usual at Foxconn, one of the world’s premier electronics makers.

While details of the fracas, which left many injured, are still emerging, the pattern is familiar: the uprising reflected increasing unrest throughout China’s manufacturing workforce, as well as the intense workplace stress that has become a hallmark of the Foxconn empire since a string of well-publicized worker suicides in 2010. The question now is whether this tension will ultimately be channeled into direct action that might yield long-term changes in the global production chain that manufactures our prized gadgets.

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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?
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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 →

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 →

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 →