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Exploitation Remains the Name of the Game at Dell’s Chinese Factories

4:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Electronics assemblers in Shenzhen, China, where a recent report detailed substandard conditions at a Dell factory. (Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

There is nothing newsworthy in the latest investigative report on working conditions in Chinese electronics factories—just the same old story, really: Once again, there’s evidence of systematic exploitation of workers, suppression of labor organizing, poor living conditions and chronic economic insecurity for young workers. What has changed is the intensity of the industry’s resistance to cleaning up the worst labor practices of China’s global manufacturing model. Even as a rising generation of young workers are increasingly disillusioned with harsh working conditions and dismal job prospects, high tech manufacturers are still taking the low road on their rights.

The report, authored by the Denmark-based DanWatch, with support from U.S.-based China Labor Watch and in collaboration with other European consumer advocacy organizations, describes disturbing workplace troubles at factories that supply the computer giant Dell.

It turns out that the chips and motherboards that bring modern efficiency to western offices are made under pretty backward conditions. Through site visits and personal interviews with workers at four factories that supply Dell (all managed by Taiwan-based companies) in Jiangsu and Guangdong, researchers uncovered evidence of numerous violations. At all four of the facilities, employees reported working long hours that sometimes totaled more than 60 a week or exceeded the legal overtime cap of 36 hours per month. In some cases, workers reported working seven days straight, without a day off. This non-stop schedule violates the voluntary standards Dell agreed to under the framework of the Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC), an industry consortium that promotes ethical sourcing.

The report quotes one worker, Zhao Lili of Guangxi Province, describing physical exhaustion and seemingly toxic conditions on the shop floor:

“Because of the welding, the temperature is uncomfortably high and the smell is toxic. We don’t get mouth protection and I get skin irritation if I touch my face at work,” she says.

Zhao explains the work is exhausting because of the repetitive movements and long hours. “We have to stand up the entire 12 hour shift; to sit down, you have to ask for permission.”

Many, according to investigator interviews and observations, were living in cramped dormitories, with poor quality food and a single toilet for as many as 50 people. Often, employers hired “student interns” to do essentially the same work as regular full-time employees, but with less pay and job security. China Labor Watch Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells Working In These Times that this is common practice in an industry bent on squeezing every last drop of profit from its workforce:

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Educators Wary of Tech Fixes for College Affordability Crisis

1:32 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Wikimedia Commons/Avatar)

Originally published at In These Times

As tuitions rise and the job market still slumps, many young college graduates are wrestling with the question of how to make their increasingly expensive educations pay off. Now, new technologies are emerging as a potential solution for the college affordability crisis, according to some educational administrators and officials. The growing public fascination with “Massive Open Online Courses,” or MOOCs, suggests that in the near future, a public university degree may become cheaper and more accessible, with a greater economic “return on investments” for the government. Yet some education advocates are wary of the MOOC phenomenon and urge the government to focus on brick-and-mortar educational investments before seeking a magic bullet.

Though MOOCs are still in their experimental phase, they are being heavily marketed through flashy programs like EdX, which features online courses ranging from “International Human Rights” to “Neuronal Dynamics,” taught by faculty at Harvard, MIT and other top universities and accessible tuition-free, worldwide.

And President Obama’s recently issued college affordability plan cites MOOCs as a tool for boosting return on investment for public education funding, since the model can ostensibly be scaled up to full degree programs—sometimes simply by tacking on a completion certificate that makes the MOOC credentials more official. These education modules are delivered at a mass scale with little overhead, accessible from any Internet connection and supplemented with online tests, peer discussions and tutors.

A new report by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, however, warns that college administrators and politicians might be investing too much in corporate-controlled, data-driven online learning programs.   Read the rest of this entry →

More Bad Apple: Watchdog Exposes New Chinese Factory Abuses

3:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The workers’ dormitories are often dirty and cramped, with eight to 12 workers in a room and often inadequate sanitation facilities, according to the China Labor Watch report. (Courtesy of China Labor Watch)

Originally published at In These Times

Apple’s growth and reputation for innovation have long been built on the shaky foundation of rock-bottom wages and poor labor conditions in Chinese factories. Now, a new investigation by the New York-based advocacy group China Labor Watch has further revealed the abuses, including wage violations and chemical exposures, at the warped core of Apple’s corporate empire. The report focused on Apple supplier the Pegatron Group, which has become a major producer of an upcoming new model for a scaled-back “cheap iPhone” for lower-end markets.

The most infamous of Apple’s labor problems were the widely reported the Foxconn suicides of 2010–when several workers at the Taiwanese-owned Apple contractor’s mega-compounds in China threw themselves from buildings in despair over their working conditions. Apple has since waged a highly publicized campaign to raise labor standards and wages at supplier factories.

Pegatron—a smaller company, with a mere 70,000 employees, though it counts among its clients not only Apple but also Dell, HP and Microsoft—has avoided the kind of negative publicity that Foxconn garnered. But CLW’s research on three Pegatron workplaces, two in Shanghai and one in nearby Suzhou, suggests that labor exploitation is hardwired into the entire production model for brand-name electronics manufacturing in China.

The report, based on field investigations and interviews with employees, found that workers at Pegatron still facing grueling conditions. Work shifts typically run about 11 hours, with an hourly wage of about $1.50. At the three factories investigated, according to the report, “average weekly working hours… are approximately 66 hours, 67 hours, and 69 hours.” At the same time, Apple has claimed “its suppliers had achieved 99 percent compliance with Apple’s 60-hour work week rule.” (In fact, China’s standard workweek is technically just 49 hours, but workers are typically pressured to work excessive overtime.) Read the rest of this entry →

A More Democratic Foxconn? No One Told the Workers

12:52 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

SACOM Apple protest, Hong Kong (Lennon Ying-Dah Wong via flickr / creative commons)

With a workforce of more than one million, the electronics giant Foxconn has enough workers in its Chinese factories to fill a small country. So it’s fitting that the company has vowed to make its manufacturing kingdom a bit more democratic by encouraging union elections.

But although the company announced its push for union democracy in February, a subsequent study by academics in Hong Kong and mainland China reveals that many workers don’t even know whether they’re in a union, and many others don’t have a clear idea of what their union does or how it works. And that actually makes perfect sense, since China’s unions are ill-defined, bureaucratized institutions –politically ineffective by design.

The union plan is part of a host of promised reforms that followed public scrutiny of Foxconn’s premiere client, Apple. The Apple brand has come under fire from advocacy groups and the media for profiting from the exploitation of young Foxconn workers – underscored by a series of employee suicides stretching from 2010 to just a few weeks ago.

As Working In These Times noted when the plan was announced in February, the idea of “democratizing” unions at Foxconn should be viewed skeptically since official unions are linked to the state-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which tends to collude with employers in ignoring or suppressing autonomous labor action.

While labor movements in many regions, including the U.S. and Europe, face a tension between militant labor activism and “cooperative” union structures based on “partnership” with management, in a non-democratic nation like China, where unions are aligned with the government, activism and the official unions are fundamentally at odds. As many activists and reporters have pointed out, the most critical strikes and protests in recent years have been illegal and unsanctioned—many of them spontaneous wildcat strikes that sprung up out of frustration with management. Such unrest is precisely what the ACFTU is designed to pre-empt and contain, not foster. Read the rest of this entry →

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 →