A survey of poor working conditions at factories in China where U.S.-designed products are manufactured.
We all know that many of the consumer goods we use everyday are manufactured in China. The nearly ubiquitous “Made in China” label reminds us in America how many things we now acquire from the world’s largest exporter. Increasingly, the goods imported into the U.S. from the People’s Republic are not only simple household items or textiles, but also complex electronic devices designed by American firms and assembled by Chinese workers overseas.
Over the past several years, Apple Inc., one of the most successful and admired companies on the planet, has elicited criticism for the labor practices of its Chinese contractors. Apple’s highly sought after items – the iPhone, iPad, and iPod – bear the label “Designed by Apple in California Assembled in China.” Taiwan-based Foxconn (otherwise known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd.), one of Apple’s numerous overseas partners, has been manufacturing these products for years. It has also come under intense scrutiny for the potentially exploitative labor policies it follows.
In 2012 the New York Times published an exposé on conditions at a Foxconn facility in China where iPads are manufactured. The article was prompted by an explosion of aluminum dust particles at a Chengdu plant that killed four people and injured another 18. It cites numerous workers’ rights violations uncovered by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a labor practices monitoring organization. FLA audits produced citations for poor workplace conditions, unpaid overtime, and the unsafe use of poisonous substances handled by workers, among others.
Prior audits at Foxconn, conducted as early as 2007, noted that workers regularly labored more than 60 hours per week in the factory – in defiance of Chinese labor laws – and revealed core violations of Apple’s code of conduct. Further investigation uncovered that many of Foxconn’s workers had little option other than to live in crowded company dorms in order to save money, were subjected to unpaid overtime work, or were required to stand continuously during shifts that lasted more than 11 hours. The article also discussed reports of nineteen apparent employee suicides at the firm, and other suicide attempts at various Foxconn facilities.
In 2012, a Wired.com article reported that, in response to concerns about labor violations at Foxconn, Apple reiterated that the Fair Labor Association would continue probing worker conditions at Foxconn factories in China, including the so-called “Foxconn City” in Shenzen, Southern China.
Critics of the FLA quoted in the Wired article, however, noted that Apple has been using FLA audits of its vendors since 2006 with little or no overall improvement in Chinese working conditions. The company explained that this time around FLA would interview thousands of Foxconn workers confidentially and off site. According to Reuters, Aureet van Heerden, the president of FLA, visited Foxconn facilities in 2012 and declared them “first-class … way, way above average.” But critics were surprised when van Heerden characterized labor problems there as “more a function of monotony, or boredom, of alienation perhaps.” Many began to question the efficacy of the FLA.
Since this time, the FLA has been accused of providing little more than a positive public relations spin on these issues for major firms like Apple and Nike – the latter having formed FLA in 1999 in the face of student protests in the U.S over its alleged use of overseas sweatshop labor. Meanwhile, without any power to actually change worker conditions beyond citing violations, the Fair Labor Association unquestionably lacks the ability to exert real pressure on the Chinese government or any of the multinational firms that use, and pay for, its services – a situation that also creates a clear conflict of interest.
Another more recent New York Times article on this topic highlights the general lack of worker representation at Foxconn. According to the article, Hewlett Packard, which uses the Chinese vendor to assemble its PC parts, issued new guidelines in 2013 that would limit exploitation of student and other temporary workers in Chinese factories. The report notes that Chinese high school students are frequently ordered by their administrators to work long hours at factories during school holidays, even when the work has nothing to do with their studies. Such action appears to be a response to unmet demand for relatively unskilled factory labor in China as these jobs become less and less attractive to mainstream workers.
In the face of these concerns, many of us in the United States might still ask ourselves, how important is it really to question the labor policies of a rapidly industrializing foreign country like China? China is undergoing a period of unprecedented economic growth. Like Britain, the first nation to industrialize back in the late eighteenth century, it is bound to experience some major labor upheavals, even as it is positions itself to overtake the United States at the world’s largest economy. (When this will eventually happen is a matter of contention, with estimates ranging from sometime this year to as late as 2028, according to the Huffington Post.)
So, why care? Why not just let China work out its labor problems?
Because, in today’s globalized economy the overall state of labor both inside and outside of the U.S. is of great importance to us all. The jobs we perform and the working conditions we enjoy (or endure) reflect our current state of extraordinary global interconnectedness and mutual responsibility. Many of the goods we consume everyday are produced in far-off places, but regardless of the distance they travel, each and every one of those items should be the product of dignified human labor. If we fail to understand and demand this we put our own rights and dignities as laborers, along with the legal protections that guarantee those rights, in jeopardy.