National Sections of the L5I:

Apple and Foxconn – the reality behind the image

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Last week, in a blaze of publicity, Apple unveiled its latest iPhone. To complete the image of a modern, caring company that has put the bad old days of sweated labour behind it, the BBC reported that Apple, and the Taiwanese firm, Foxconn, which employs over 1 million workers in factories across China, were planning improved conditions for workers that would “raise the bar" for all manufacturers in China. Almost simultaneously, however, events in the real world presented a radically different picture.

In a report published to coincide with the launch of iPhone 5, the Hong Kong-based research group, SACOM, revealed that the oppressive and degrading working conditions, excessive overtime and failure to pay overtime rates, which had been documented in earlier reports, are still to be found in the Foxconn plant at Zhengzhou in Henan province, which is dedicated to iPhone production.

In particular, researchers highlighted:

*Excessive overtime: Since August, monthly overtime hours have been between 80-100 hours on some production lines, that is up to three times the legal limit.
*Unpaid overtime: Workers have to attend the daily work assembly without payment. On some lines, workers must complete the production target before they can stop working - even if that means working overtime without pay.
*“Comprehensive” working hours, meaning hours are totalled over the month, ignoring weekend working that should by law, attract double overtime premiums. Workers are given compensation leave instead of extra payment.
*Denial of ergonomic breaks: Foxconn and Apple have promised to offer two daily breaks to allow workers to offset the effects of repetitive actions and stressed positions, but SACOM found that most of the interviewees have not enjoyed any such breaks at all.
*Low wages: Foxconn has modestly increased the basic salary in Zhengzhou, but it is still insufficient for workers to meet their basic needs, especially when they have dependants.  
*Student interns: The provincial government is using different channels to supply workers to Foxconn. Student internships are one of the means. As such, vocational schools are sending students to Foxconn to cope with the peak season.
*Dispatch labour: Foxconn is hiring dispatched labour in Zhengzhou. The sub-contractual workers do not know if they have social insurance.
*Arbitrary relocation of workforce: In the rush to complete iPhone 5 orders, Foxconn is relocating workers from other provinces to Zhengzhou. Workers may not have a choice in these transfers, do not always know how long they are going to stay and sometimes have to stay long past the promised time.
*Occupational health and safety: Inadequate training and protection for workers. Workers feel the chemicals that they contact regularly, such as “cutting fluid,” glue and thinners, have strong odours. Workers worry about their health, but there is a lack of effective protection for them.
*Inhumane management practices: Workers need to acquire an “off-duty permit” for a toilet break; this is inhumane and unreasonable. A worker who did not sit properly in a standard position was asked to write a confession statement, repeating a longstanding unacceptable practice by Foxconn.
*Crackdown on strikes: Workers reported a number of strikes in Zhengzhou because of low wages or unfair treatment. In one very recent example, the workers concerned were dismissed by Foxconn.
*Company-controlled union: Supervisors passed around a book for workers to sign up for trade union membership at Foxconn without explaining how the union is relevant to them.

The full report can be found at

Riots in Taiyuan

On Sunday, September 23, reports of a riot at Foxconn's plant in Taiyuan, the capital of the Northern province of Shanxi, began to spread on the internet. Although the company hurried out a press release describing the incident as “a brawl between individuals, unrelated to work", more detailed reports spoke of four workers being beaten up by security guards after one failed to produce ID when returning to a dormitory at 10.00 pm.

What is no longer in any doubt is that the clash with security guards resulted in a full-scale conflict involving up to 3000 workers which was only brought to an end by the intervention of some 5000 riot police. As a result management were forced to close the entire plant.

Small-scale fights only develop into such major confrontations if there is something fundamentally wrong in a company. Even before any further details emerge, and given the evidence in the SACOM report, it is clear that there must already have been widespread anger amongst the plant's 79,000 workers. If that is the case, it points to the complete lack of any effective trade union able to represent the workforce and protect their interests.

If reports of clashes between workers from Shandong province and Henan province are anything more than management attempts to divide this huge workforce, then that is further evidence that the official union has utterly failed to unify the workers.

Whatever other details come to light in subsequent days, the events in Taiyuan are sure to turn the spotlight once again on the conditions endured by workers not only in Foxconn factories but throughout China's huge industrial base. There is already talk of an investigation but if this is to be anything more than a public relations exercise, the workers themselves need to exercise control over its conduct and the publication of its findings.

Workers at Taiyuan should follow the example of the Ford workers at Foshan during their strike two years ago. Although formally members of the completely pro-management trade union, the strikers insisted on electing their own negotiators who were able to report back to democratic mass meetings. This model of organisation, essentially a democratically elected factory committee, is a strategic necessity for all workers in China.

In Foxconn, it would have to ensure not only equal representation for men and women but take into account the need to overcome regional rivalries to avoid management divide and rule tactics. That would be a first step to developing an effective trade union organisation in the plant, able to enforce working conditions and pay as modern and as advanced as Apple's technology.