China's young make them, America's youth buy them -- Apple probes work
Shenzhen, China -- Lunchtime arrives and hundreds of young, weary workers in
company shirts flood through factory gates and out into the sweltering southern
Most are migrants in their own country. Born poor in rural China, they have
come to this manufacturing mecca to make the latest gadgets for the world --
the iPods, cell phones and laptops that, of course, they can't afford.
This is the mega-factory complex of Foxconn Electronics, trade name of Taiwanese
electronics giant Hon Hai Precision Industry Corp., which makes components and
devices for Silicon Valley's -- and the world's -- top consumer electronics
brands. Foxconn counts Apple, Cisco Systems, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Nokia
and Sony among its customers and collaborators. This plant in Longhua, an outlying
suburb of Shenzhen, is the world's largest electronic-components work space,
exporting $20.7 billion in products last year.
Recent charges that Foxconn workers making iPods here earn low wages and work
crushingly long hours has spurred an investigation by Apple and stinging criticism
from around the globe. Foxconn sets the wages and working conditions, but Apple
and other brands that hire Foxconn exert major influence over its operations.
That the criticism fell squarely on Apple, a company that trumpets the lofty
ideals of Ghandi and Bob Dylan, was not a surprise.
"Apple is selling a lifestyle aimed at youth," said Robin Munro,
research director of China Labor Bulletin, a workers-rights group in Hong Kong.
"It would not probably have attracted attention if the products had been
axle grease or steel-punching machines."
Foxconn, a low-key industry giant, ranks in the middle among China-based electronics-makers
for its wages and working conditions, according to labor organizations. Here
in Guangdong province, low wages, long hours and crowded housing are common.
"It's quite normal to have these kinds of working conditions in China,"
said China Labor Bulletin's Patrick Poon.
Foxconn denied allegations made in two British newspapers that its workers
earn $50 a month in "sweatshops" making Apple's iPods. Company officials
said workers make at least the Shenzhen minimum wage, $72.50 per month, which
increased this month by $15. The company did not respond to repeated requests
for more specific information.
Incomes vary widely in China, where the communist government is scrambling
to address growing social unrest caused in part by huge pay disparities. Farmers
in central and western provinces earn on average $400 per year or less, while
workers in large urban areas like Beijing and Shanghai typically make four times
as much, according to government statistics.
A recruiting poster tacked to a utility pole near the factory's main gate tells
the story in black and white. Foxconn, it says, seeks 16- to 21-year-olds to
work in production for $72.50 to $80 per month, plus housing and meals, and
hourly overtime. Most workers are under 25. Just a few miles away in Hong Kong,
and in other richer nations, that's the target demographic for iPods and other
consumer tech products with hefty price tags.
On a hot Saturday outside the factory as workers broke for lunch, several spoke
about wages and factory conditions. Neither Foxconn nor Apple responded to requests
to go inside the factory, which is fenced, guarded and off-limits, like most
big production complexes.
About a dozen Foxconn factory workers interviewed said they earned $120 to
$140 per month, about half of that from overtime. They included young women
building Sony laptops, others making Nokia cell phones and one iPod assembler.
Many were reluctant to speak and would not give their names for fear of repercussions.
Most workers are on the job more than 40 hours a week. Since these young men
and women are not locals, the base salary does not justify coming all these
miles to work. Most are here to toil and send money home to struggling families.
They're not here for a social life.
An estimated 90 percent are part of China's massive, illegal migrant workforce.
They leave inland, poorer farming provinces where work is scarce and head to
coastal areas in the south where factories produce the world's consumer goods.
Though China has promised to reform its rigid residence permit system, as of
now only a few white-collar professionals can move easily from city-to-city
for work. Everyone else can legally work only in their hometowns, where jobs
are scarce. Central and local governments ignore this migration, which has resulted
in a 120 million- to 150 million-strong workforce responsible for building much
of the country's new wealth.
"They're not sharing proportionally in the benefits and profits in this
huge globalization effort," Munro said. "They're just doing the work.
The only reason they can survive in these cities is because all they do is work."
The migrants eat in factory canteens, sleep in factory dorms and in their few
days off a month, "all they can do is walk around and look at the prosperity"
they helped create, Munro said.
At Foxconn, even the housing benefit is in danger. Some 2,000 employees have
already left the factory after learning they would be charged for their rooms
starting this month, just as the minimum wages were set to increase, according
to the Institute for Contemporary Observation, a migrant workers rights group.
Shenzhen, where the institute is located, is a city of migrants. Of its 12
million residents, fewer than 2 million hold a legal residence card. The rest
are ineligible for health care, education or social security benefits from the
government, even though they are the driving force of the economy.
At Foxconn, like most other factories, they come to work hard for a year or
two, then return home or move to other factories. Overtime, sometimes 15 to
20 hours a week, which is more than is legally allowed, is the norm. There was
some inconsistency among the workers interviewed as to whether overtime is voluntary
One worker, a 19-year-old from Sichuan province, 700 miles west, smiled coyly
and mopped sweat from his brow when asked if he sends home his $140-per-month
wages. Not really, he said. He's spent a lot on having fun in his few nonworking
hours. Fun means beer and cigarettes.
An iPod assembler, a 20-year-old with an easy grin, described factory housing,
where hundreds of workers share common rooms, bunk-style, in large dorms. It's
96 degrees, and the dorm has no air-conditioning, said this worker, who earned
about $130 last month for working as much as 12 hours a day. The factory floor
is air-conditioned, however, so working a Saturday shift rather than resting
in the hot dorm is an easy choice.
The latest iPods cost around 3,400 yuan in China, or $420, at least $20 more
than in the United States, where the 60 GB iPod retails for $399. They're priced
higher here because the brand appeals to the country's wealthiest young consumers.
The factory wages and work hours may be the norm, said Munro, but the situation
nonetheless is unacceptable. The cost of living in southern China has skyrocketed
300 to 400 percent over the past 15 years, he said, while average worker wages
have risen just 13 to 14 percent.
The all-work lifestyle is evident at Foxconn's mega-site. These workers aren't
rushing off on Sundays to Happy Valley, the giant amusement park a few miles
away, and they're not traveling the 20 miles to Hong Kong to go shopping. They're
buying 10-cent ice-cream bars and iced water during their brief Saturday breaks,
then trudging back to work.
The iPod issue intensified interest in China's labor conditions and, in particular,
in how Western companies fail to hold suppliers to high standards, said Stephen
Frost, a founder of the research group Corporate Social Responsibility in Asia.
"The bottom line is that it has drawn Apple into finally taking seriously
its responsibility in Chinese supply chains," Frost said. "Apple is
well behind the game on this."
Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said the company has begun a thorough audit of
Foxconn's factories and will not tolerate subpar working conditions.
"Apple's supplier code of conduct sets the bar higher than accepted industry
standards, and we take allegations of noncompliance very seriously," Dowling
said in a written statement.
However, Frost said, Apple ought to follow the example of other U.S. companies
that have adopted training programs for factory managers and others in charge
of operations where they contract for labor. The garment industry learned this
lesson the hard way a decade ago when it faced similar allegations and consumer
Estimates of Foxconn's Longhua workforce vary. Some groups say it has 200,000
laborers; Foxconn disputes the numbers, saying in a news conference last week
that the whole company has fewer than 200,000 employees worldwide. Labor rights
groups argue Foxconn is splitting hairs, arguing that the company has several
subsidiaries and a total of more than 350,000 employees.
By any estimate, the factory complex is big, and the demand for electronics
and laborers to build the products shows no sign of abating. Southern China
is facing a major labor shortage -- a need for an extra 1.5 million workers,
by some estimates -- because many are choosing to stay on the farm. Still, new
recruits linger at Foxconn's factory gates.
"The fact that Chinese workers are willing to work for these kinds of
wages doesn't make it right," Munro said. "Ultimately, it is the Western
consumer who has to examine their role in this."
Liu Kaiming, founder of the Institute for Contemporary Observation, has an
egalitarian view of how Apple can solve this problem. Apple should lower its
prices and demand Foxconn raise wages. About half of China's migrant workers
now have cell phones because prices dropped, he explained.
"Apple has so much money and American consumers pay so much, they should
be concerned with their workers getting so little," Liu said. "If
all the workers could afford to buy an iPod, then Apple would have even more
Read from Looking Glass News
Garments: A Worker-Organized Factory Challenges Sweatshops
Rights Group Says NFL, NBA Jerseys Are Manufactured in Sweatshop
You A Slave?
chains steal childhoods
hit by 'sweatshop' claim
Abortions & Sweatshops
Sorrows of Globalization: Capitalism and Slavery
'live in modern slavery'
Beneath the Golden Arches?
7 Habits of Highly Effective Corporations
Mercenaries For the Empire - Up to 10,000 Ugandans being recruited to work for
US in Iraq, worldwide
OF CORPORATE RULE
Corporate Control Of Society And Human Life
THE CORPORATION: IT HAS NO CONSCIENCE. IT'S PATHOLOGICAL. AND IT'S IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD.
HOW CAN WE STOP THE JUGGERNAUT?
of Corporate Power in America