Foxconn allegedly hid underage workers from inspectors
Non-profit claims iPad-maker cheated in factory audit
Updated Apple faces increased pressure today after its manufacturing partner Foxconn was accused of using forced student labour and hiding underage workers during high-profile independent inspections last week. Foxconn also makes components for other manufacturers, but Apple is its most prominent customer.
The Register spoke to Debby Sze Wan Chan, a case worker at Hong Kong based non-profit Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM). The group has been tracking what is alleges are "involuntary labour practices" at Foxconn, which makes gear from iPads and iPhones to games consoles.
She claimed that local governments in China "repay" Foxconn’s decision to locate in their area by shipping off vocational students to work in the factories as interns in order to help cope with the high turnover of employees.
She alleged to The Register that these students are sent to these factories even if their chosen subjects bear no relation to the work they will be "forced" to undertake.
“We describe the internships as involuntary or forced labour because if they don't go to the factory they may not be able to graduate or they may need to drop out of their courses,” Chan told The Reg.
She added that according to conversations with Foxconn workers, the recent high-profile inspection of the hardware giant’s Shenzhen factory by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) was flawed. She said her group had received information in the form of allegations that the company had prepared for it by hiding illegal workers.
“I heard from Foxconn workers that underage workers of 16-17 years old were not assigned any overtime work during the audits,” she said. “It’s obvious that Foxconn prepared for the audits, although the FLA said they were unannounced.”
Chan said she’d also heard that another worker had been given three breaks – as opposed to the usual one a day – in preparation for the FLA visit.
Mark Natkin, managing director of China-based tech consulting firm Marbridge Consulting, said he was unsurprised at the revelations.
“I have trouble imagining an inspection, probably in any country, where management wouldn't tuck potential issues safely out of view,” he told The Reg.
“To get a truly clear picture of day-to-day operating conditions, agencies need to do not only a factory inspection, but also figure out a way to talk to a significant number of employees in an off-site environment where each employee interviewed feels confident he or she can speak candidly without fear of losing his/her job or of other reprisals.”
FLA under fire
Chan also reckons the FLA is “not really independent”, given that it is funded by large corporates, including – most recently – Apple, and its board comprises representatives of these firms.
FLA boss Auret van Heerden was criticised in some quarters for giving Foxconn a glowing appraisal after an initial inspection last week, although he dismissed suggestions of any favouritism towards Cupertino.
In any case, the time for inspections has already passed, according to SACOM’s Chan.
“It’s now time for Apple to ask ‘how do we handle the labour rights violations?’ instead of commissioning the FLA,” she said. “It had 229 audits last year so it appears Apple is well informed of the problems – excessive overtime, harsh management practices and exposure to dangerous chemicals – so it doesn’t need to come across as innocent.”
She said that although conditions for workers making products for other tech giants including Nokia and HP are hardly better, Apple has made itself a target thanks to publishing and publicising a more rigorous code of conduct for suppliers.
Investigations and petitions...
To be fair, some progress is being made. The FLA investigations will continue to delve deeper into conditions at various Apple suppliers and sites over the coming months, while Apple CEO Tim Cook has admitted to the existence of underage labour in suppliers' plants, and has pledged to end it – although he claimed it had been eradicated from final-assembly factories such as Foxconn’s plants.
Cook also admitted that Apple’s rules on voluntary overtime were often broken and said the firm had begun to "manage working hours on a very micro basis".
Foxconn also reportedly raised its workers’ wages as of 1 February by 16 to 25 per cent, but Chan argued that with deductions usually made for accommodation and food costs, workers still need to ramp up a lot of overtime to get by.
For Chan, the only solution involves democratically elected trade union representation at the factories – at the moment representatives are hand-picked – and the continuing pressure of consumers.
“We believe there will be renewed action taken by Apple after the FLA report but our organisation is only small – how do we monitor any changes at Foxconn or in other suppliers?” she said.
“Workers there have told us they’ve often observed the presence of Apple [officials]. They only care about the products and profits not labour rights, but they need to have more sensitivity about working conditions. We need to improve the quality of inspections but there should also be effective trade union representation so workers can have dialogue with [their employers].”
SACOM this month drew up a petition demanding Apple stop using student workers and improve conditions at its suppliers, but has so far failed to engage the fruity tech titan in this.
“Apple has become more transparent by joining the FLA, but we went to the Apple store in Hong Kong to deliver another petition from one of our American partners recently,” Chan explained. “We waited outside for an hour but no one was willing to receive our letter and eventually they called the police.” ®
Updated to Add
Foxconn representatives have been in touch with a statement, from which we quote:
Let us be very clear, Foxconn does not employ, in any capacity, any underage workers.
Foxconn increased wages throughout our operations in China to ensure that we maintained our position as one of the highest paying companies in our industry.