NGOs Report Harsh Conditions at Chinese Factories Making Popular Electronics

July 24, 2012

In recent months, several worker rights NGOs have issued reports documenting poor working conditions at factories in China producing electronic products for well-known brands such as Apple, HP, Nokia, Dell, AT&T, and Motorola. The reports underscore Chinese workers' inability to form independent unions to advocate for their rights and lack of enforcement of Chinese labor laws.

SACOM Report (May 2012)

On May 31, 2012, the Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) issued a report following up on an investigation undertaken by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) at Foxconn factories in China. Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, employs more than one million workers in China who make iPads, iPhones, laptops and other electronic products for major brands such as Apple, HP, Nokia, and Dell. In January, the New York Times ran a front-page article on Foxconn factories in China detailing "onerous work environments" and "serious" safety problems. In February, FLA began investigating the alleged violations, and in March issued a report noting "serious and pressing noncompliances" with Chinese labor law and FLA's code of conduct. Apple and Foxconn agreed to implement the report's recommendations, including ensuring "elections of worker representatives without management interference," reducing overtime to the legal limit by July 2013 while protecting workers' pay, and paying workers "fairly for all overtime and work-related meetings that occur outside regular working hours."

From March to May 2012, SACOM conducted a follow-up survey of Foxconn facilities in Zhengzhou city, Henan province, and the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, and interviewed more than 170 workers making mostly Apple products. The report found that labor violations "remain the norm." Among the report's findings include:

  • Lack of freedom of association. The report found that workers viewed the company's unions as unhelpful and mere "window dressing." According to one worker, "Everyone knows the union here is controlled by the company." The report found that supervisors had begun signing up workers without explaining the union's purpose.
  • Problems relating to overtime. The report found that Apple's demands for short delivery times led some workers to work up to 80 hours of overtime a month, far exceeding the legal limit of 36 (see Article 41 of the PRC Labor Law). The report found that overtime had decreased since February 2012, but that demand for productivity had increased. Workers complained of exhaustion because of new production targets and of being ordered to work until the target was met. The cuts in overtime also made it more difficult for workers to earn a living wage. On occasion the company did not pay workers for overtime work.
  • Harsh working and living conditions. Workers reported being ordered to write confession letters, and to move boxes and clean toilets as punishment. Workers also reported handling unknown chemicals, while management faced disincentives to report injuries. Workers criticized a hotline for not being helpful or independent from management.

China Labor Watch Report (June 2012)

On June 27, 2012, New York-based China Labor Watch (CLW) issued a report on other Apple supplier factories in China to see if problems at Foxconn were present in other parts of Apple's supply chain. Their investigation of ten Apple supplier factories in Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Jiangsu province, conducted from January to April 2012, found that "the labor rights violations at Foxconn also exist in virtually all other Apple supplier factories, and in many cases are actually significantly more dire than at Foxconn." The report found the following problems at the factories: excessive overtime of up to 180 hours per month; dangerous working conditions; unfair calculation of working time; poor food quality; lack of familiarity with unions and their function; low wages; high work intensity; lack of provision of insurance required by law; and lack of proper pay for overtime work. The report found that a major overlooked problem was the overuse of "dispatched labor," or the hiring of short-term labor without the benefits and limits on overtime of regular employment. The report is currently unavailable on the CLW Web site, but Reuters reported on it on June 28.

Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights Report (June 2012)

In June 2012, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, a Pittsburgh-based worker rights organization, issued a report on working conditions at plants in Dongguan city, Guangdong province. The plants are run by VTech, a Hong Kong-based company that is reportedly the world's largest manufacturer of cordless phones. The report noted VTech produces phones for AT&T, Motorola, Deutsche Telekom, and Telstra (Australia), some of which are sold at stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Staples, Sears, among others. According to the report, workers at the Chinese plants were forced to work excessive overtime, subject to beatings, forced to stand all day, and housed in cramped living quarters without showers. The report also found VTech forced workers who failed to meet production goals to work without pay, denied its workers social security benefits, and denied workers who quit one month's wages. The report cited incidence of worker suicides.

Following release of the report, VTech issued a statement "categorically" rejecting the allegations and saying it was "now considering taking appropriate legal action." According to a June 25 Current (Australia) article, VTech said overtime is voluntary and complies with China's Labor Law and denied allegations that employees are denied benefits or beaten. The Australia-based Telstra, citing deep concern over the institute's report, announced that it was temporarily suspending sales and rentals of its VTech products, according to a June 22 Current article. Telstra later resumed sale of the products after an investigation, according to a July 5 Register article.