UPDATE June 27, 2012: Another independent research group, China Labor Watch, has released a report that "reveals that serious work-related injuries and worker suicides are by no means isolated to just Foxconn but exist throughout Apple’s supply chain." How many more independent researchers will there be finding major problems before Apple finally fixes working conditions? Click here to download the CLW report.
UPDATE May 31, 2012: Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Hong-Kong based research group, has released a report based on interviews with Apple factory workers after Apple committed to improve working conditions. SACOM's report confirms that Foxconn, Apple's main supplier in China, has indeed not made changes to really improve workers' lives -- for example, workers have seen their overtime hours reduced to a more reasonable level, but their base pay has not increased, meaning that they are now earning less per week than they were before Apple pledged to treat workers ethically.
Since Apple committed on March 29, 2012 to addressing working conditions in the Chinese factories that build iPhones, iPods and iPads, little has changed in the day-to-day lives of the hundreds of thousands of workers who make our iGadgets. Many workers are still forced to work illegal and excessive overtime, and others have had their overtime hours cut back but are still paid poverty wages so they can no longer make ends meet — all while Apple continues to rake in tens of billions of dollars as the most profitable company in the world.
Here's what would it take for our iGadgets to truly be made ethically:
Pay workers a living wage
Wages at Apple's suppliers are so low that the only way for workers to feed their families is through overtime, often well in excess of the legal maximum of 36 hours per month. In 2011, the monthly base salary of the workers who produced the iPhones and iPads in China was as low as 850 Yuan (US$134) to 950 Yuan (US$150), respectively. The Workers Rights Consortium believes a living wage in China would be at least double this.
While Foxconn implemented some minor wage increases for some of its workers, the company simultaneously eliminated subsidies for workers' food and housing, virtually cancelling any impact of the wage increase. This has led to workers refusing to work in protest at one factory in Shanxi that makes iPhone and MacBook cases.
Given Apple's massive profit margin and available financial resources, there is no excuse – economic, moral or practical – for any worker employed in the production of goods for Apple to go one more day without being paid a living wage.
Apple needs to enforce, without delay, payment of a genuine living wage for all workers making Apple products, for a regular 40-hour workweek.
End illegal overtime
In 2011, a typical shift for Foxconn workers was 10 hours per day, 6-7 days a week in the peak season. Therefore, overtime could be as high as 100 hours per month, almost 3 times the legal standard. Workers report that overtime is mandatory, but even if it were optional, workers are simply not paid enough to survive without working illegal and excessive overtime.
Apple and Foxconn have agreed to stop forcing workers to work illegal levels of overtime by July 1, 2013, but there is no reason Foxconn can't come into compliance with Chinese law, which limits overtime to 36 hours per month, sooner. Excessive overtime is a very easy problem to fix for a company that actually wants to fix it. It simply requires hiring enough workers to cover all shifts, and paying a living wage for regular work hours. Apple has failed to eliminate excessive overtime not because it is difficult to eliminate, but because Apple relies on Foxconn's ability to impose illegally long hours for workers whenever it wants Foxconn to.
Apple needs to immediately end to all overtime hours in excess of the legal maximum (36 hours of per month in China).
Eliminate hazardous working conditions
In 2009, nearly 140 workers at the Wintek factory in China were poisoned by n-hexane, a chemical used for cleaning the touchscreens of iPhones. Some of the victims were hospitalized for more than nine months due to nerve damage. While Apple reports that n-hexane is no longer used in the manufacture of its products, the injured Wintek workers continue to suffer the enduring impact of n-hexane poisoning and have received only minimal compensation, well below what is needed to cover their long-term medical expenses. Furthermore, almost all Foxconn workers interviewed offsite by the independent monitoring group SACOM were unaware of the chemicals they were using or the potential harm to their health from the use of the chemicals. Some workers complained of skin allergies or headaches as a result of chemical exposure, but their only options were to endure the illness or resign.
Industrial injuries at Apple suppliers are as appalling as occupational illnesses. On May 20, 2011, a deadly explosion occurred in the polishing department at Foxconn's iPad plant in Chengdu, killing four workers and injuring 18. Seven months later, another blast occurred at a different Apple supplier, Riteng Computer Accessory in Shanghai. In this accident 59 workers were injured and several suffered facial disfigurement and broken bones as a result. Both explosions were triggered by the excessive buildup of combustible aluminium dust in the air on the shop floor, and could have been prevented had Apple mandated installation of simple exhaust fans.
Although Apple claims in its Supplier Code of Conduct that "Suppliers must be committed to highest standards of ethical conduct when dealing with workers, suppliers and customers," the reality is that workers at Apple suppliers are constantly exposed to unsafe work environments, at risk of being poisoned or injured due to Apple's negligence in ensuring compliance with its own standards. Apple claims that many of the safety violations have been addressed, but simply trusting its statements that another Chengdu explosion or Wintek poisoning won't happen isn't good enough.
Apple needs to conduct labor rights training for workers, including training on occupational health and safety, allow ongoing inspections for workplace safety violations, and compensate victims of non-compliance in accordance with the Apple code of conduct.
Support worker participation in decision-making
In 2010, at least 18 Foxconn workers attempted to commit suicide — 14 of them died. After this came to light, workers stated in their interviews that they felt they were treated like machines and were continually insulted by management. Workers at the new Foxconn factory in Chengdu were forced to undergo "military training," which they believed was a means to indoctrinate them into a system of absolute obedience. Some supervisors yelled at the new workers, "If you cannot endure this little hardship, then you can leave Foxconn immediately!" Although Apple's Code of Conduct stresses that workers should be treated with respect and dignity, this has not been the experience of employees at Foxconn's factories.
In the wake of the suicide attempts, Foxconn created a hotline counseling service — a poor substitute for genuine freedom of association. Although there is a government- sponsored official trade union at Foxconn, it is dominated by management and does not represent workers' interests. In fact, few workers know how the union was formed or how its representatives are selected.
There is simply no way workers' rights will ever by consistently and effectively protected in factories like those operated by Foxconn unless workers are in a position to advocate for themselves and defend their own rights and interests. That means they need an independent union with democratically elected leaders.
Apple needs to ensure that workers can democratically elect their own representatives and bargain with Apple and its suppliers for better wages and working conditions.
Welcome genuinely independent monitoring
Apple garnered much positive media attention when it paid $250,000 to join the Fair Labor Association (FLA), and then paid the FLA an undisclosed fee to audit their factories in February 2012. The report on the FLA's findings was released on March 29, 2012. However, the Fair Labor Association is far from independent — the FLA has a financial and organizational relationship with Apple, and even went so far as to praise Foxconn (Apple's main Chinese supplier) before beginning the investigation. FLA inspectors notified factory bosses in advance of the date they intended to carry out inspections, so potential violations could be swept under the rug until after the investigators left. On top of that, it ignored or glossed over documented issues of Apple's reliance on unpaid workers, and the psychological abuse workers face from management.
Despite the FLA's lack of credibility as a genuinely independent monitoring agency, it still reported finding more than 50 violations of the FLA code of conduct and/or Chinese law. We believe there are many more violations that went unnoticed or unreported on by the FLA, but there is no way to know without continuous, independent monitoring by groups like Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based workers' rights group that has been repeatedly denied entry to Apple factories.
Apple needs to allow genuinely independent monitors to access factory floors and interview workers, without first tipping off factory managers that an inspection is coming.
End the use of involuntary labor
Owing to harsh management practices, the turnover rate at Foxconn is extremely high. To maintain the stability of the workforce and to meet production demands during the peak season, Foxconn hires, with the support of the local governments, tens of thousands of students as "interns". The so-called "internship" is a sham as it has no relevance to the students' academic studies. Furthermore, this program is not voluntary — students have reported that if they refuse the "internship" at Foxconn, they will be forced by their school to drop out. This use of involuntary labor is supposedly prohibited by Apple. Disappointingly, in Apple's Supplier Responsibility Report, the use of student workers is not even mentioned.
Apple needs to ensure that all workers are paid and treated fairly, and any internships — whether paid or unpaid — are designed for the benefit of the intern and the company, rather than padding assembly lines to meet arbitrary deadlines.
Actually make changes, unlike in 2006
Back in 2006, when the abuses at Foxconn were first exposed to a US audience, Apple admitted that violations were occurring, announced that it had asked an outside body to audit its factories (presenting this as a major step forward), and promised that it was taking bold steps to put an end to labor rights violations at Foxconn. Among other promises, Apple insisted that excessive overtime would soon be a thing of the past because of robust preventative mechanisms Foxconn had supposedly put in place. Below are statements made by Apple in 2006, concerning labor rights problems, factory auditing, and overtime violations. Compare these to the statements made on these subjects by Apple in January 2012, which follow.
Apple in 2006:
"Employees worked longer hours than permitted by our Code of Conduct, which limits normal workweeks to 60 hours and requires at least one day off each week… [Foxconn] has enacted a policy change to enforce the weekly overtime limits set by our Code of Conduct. The policy change has been communicated to supervisors and employees and a management system has been implemented to track compliance… Supervisors must receive approval from upper level management for any deviation."
"We've engaged the services of Verité, an internationally recognized leader in workplace standards dedicated to ensuring that people around the world work under safe, fair and legal conditions. We are committed to ensuring compliance with our Code of Conduct and will complete audits of all final assembly suppliers in 2006… In cases where a supplier's efforts in this area do not meet our expectations, their contracts will be terminated."
Apple in 2012:
"We continue to address excessive work hours, and this has been a challenge throughout the history of our program…Apple limits factory working hours to a maximum of 60 work hours per week and requires at least one day of rest per seven days of work — except in emergencies or unusual circumstances…Reducing excessive overtime is a top priority for our Supplier Responsibility program in 2012…
"Apple is the first technology company to be admitted to the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The FLA has made incredible progress over the past decade to improve working conditions and protect workers… We will open our supply chain to an FLA auditing team. This team will measure our performance against the FLA's own Workplace Code of Conduct…If a supplier is unwilling to change, we terminate our relationship."
For the past six years, Apple has appeared to be all talk and little action. With workers' rights violations happening on a daily basis in many factories in Apple's supply chain, we cannot allow Apple to wait to act. Apple has the resources and the heft to implement these changes — but it won't do it unless we continue to pressure it to make our products ethically.
Why are we focusing only on Apple?
As the largest company in the world, Apple has the cash, the centralized supply chain, and the organizational heft to push the Chinese manufacturing industry to change its practices -- and if Apple acts, it could mean a sea change for the entire industry, with workers’ rights finally being considered as important as production quotas across the manufacturing sector. No other company can lead like Apple can.
This document draws heavily, and sometimes quotes directly from, an open letter to Tim Cook signed by several dozen organizations, a SumOfUs.org memo to journalists on the FLA report, and Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct (which Apple admits its suppliers violate regularly).