The implosion of Mike Daisey’s Foxconn stories may have, in the short term, returned focus to Apple’s suppliers of their electronic products. Now Foxconn, the notorious Chinese manufacturer, has announced a series of changes to working conditions at the plant.
Responding to a critical investigation of its factories, the manufacturing giant Foxconn has pledged to sharply curtail working hours and significantly increase wages inside Chinese plants making electronic products for Apple and others. The move could improve working conditions across China.
The shift comes after a far-ranging inspection by the Fair Labor Association, a monitoring group, found widespread problems — including at least 43 violations of Chinese laws and regulations, and numerous instances where Foxconn defied industry codes of conduct by having employees work more than 60 hours a week, and sometimes more than 11 days in a row. The group released a report Thursday with its findings.
The monitoring group, which surveyed more than 35,000 Foxconn employees and inspected three large facilities where Apple products are manufactured, also found that 43 percent of workers had experienced or witnessed accidents, and almost two-thirds said their compensation “does not meet their basic needs.” Many said that the unions available to them do “not provide true worker representation.”
Critical investigations from international organizations led to these shifts. Apple recently joined the Fair Labor Association, making it more difficult for Foxconn to deny the investigations.
But really, Foxconn is complying with Chinese law, which limits hours to 49 per week. They claim that overall wages will not decline, because they will increase hourly rates. But some Foxconn workers are skeptical.
But at the Foxconn factory gates, many workers seemed unconvinced that their pay wouldn’t be cut along with their hours. For some Chinese factory workers – who make much of their income from long hours of overtime – the idea of less work for the same pay could take getting used to.
“We are worried we will have less money to spend. Of course, if we work less overtime, it would mean less money,” said Wu, a 23-year-old employee from Hunan province in south China.
Foxconn said it will reduce working hours to 49 per week, including overtime.
“We are here to work and not to play, so our income is very important,” said Chen Yamei, 25, a Foxconn worker from Hunan who said she had worked at the factory for four years.
Obviously, the Fair Labor Association and others monitoring Foxconn will have to be vigilant. There’s a subset of Chinese workers who come to Foxconn to make as much as possible working ungodly hours for a few years, and then return to their villages with the proceeds. The shift of hours with increased wages simply occasions a shift to a different standard of living, with more leisure time and the ability to create a life around these kinds of factory jobs, rather than a suicide mission of gathering up as many hours as possible. It remains to be seen whether Chinese workers will respond positively to that shift. But I would argue that it’s better for society as a whole.
The other hope is that this will have the effect of raising standards at other factories in China. That was the whole point of focusing on Apple, a distinguished brand that would be more susceptible to activism than more obscure Chinese factories. Global labor standards should be a focus of any labor movement. It brings us closer to a level playing field for trade, and just as importance, it puts value on work everywhere in the world, and forces management to share their success with those who toil.