The "independent" audit of working conditions at Apple's Chinese manufacturing supply chain is out, and it is not good. Workers are being exploited in ways that violate human rights standards and laws, and letting them get away with this is costing us our own jobs. Apple's suppliers promise to improve conditions, make workplaces safer, stop forcing such long hours and lift wages. Foxconn even says they'll start obeying Chinese law -- but not until next year! If this really does happen can China keep its competitive advantage?
By opening up so-called "free trade" we made democracy a competitive disadvantage. We just let in goods made in places where people have no say, and as a result there is no environmental protection, little worker protection, terrible working conditions, very low wages and terrible exploitation of people. So of course that undercuts goods made where people have a say, and therefore demand better. We made "We, the People" having a say (democracy) into a competitive disadvantage! Because we make this mistake we lost millions of jobs, tens of thousands of factories and entire industries. We devastated out not just towns and cities, but entire regions. (See Free Trade Or Democracy, Can't Have Both.)
Free People Won't Tolerate That
A recent groundbreaking New York Times story by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work", exposed how workers are treated by Apple's suppliers. Summary: Steve Jobs told President Obama, "Those jobs aren't coming back," because factories in China have people living in crowded dorm rooms where they can be rousted in the middle of the night and made to work 12-14 hour shifts, seven days a week, standing the whole time, for very little pay, using toxic chemicals and all kinds of other violations of human rights. Corporations can't get "performance" and "efficiency" and "productivity" -- profits -- like that out of free people who have a say, so they move their operations over there and lay off workers and close factories over here. (Important note: it's not just Apple, Apple is the biggest so the company name is really shorthand for the real culprits: namely, all of them.)
The FLA Report
This New York Times story had quite an impact. Apple was worried that people's knowledge of their exploitation of workers in China might affect profits. So Apple responded by hiring the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a "labor monitoring group" that has no actual organized labor organization participation, to conduct an audit of working conditions at Apple's Chinese suppliers. The report found numerous violations of labor standards and even Chinese law. For example, the report found "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." In addition, the report "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."
The 60-plus hour work week found at the factories is above both China's official legal maximum, 49 hours, and the maximum standard allowable by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), the organization that Apple paid to conduct what it said would be an independent audit.
...The FLA inspection also revealed that "more than 43 percent of the workers report that they have experienced or witnessed an accident," and "a considerable number of workers felt generally insecure regarding their health and safety," especially pertaining to aluminum dust, which caused an explosion at a factory in the city of Chengdu in 2011 that killed four workers and injured 77, as the New York Times reported.
Apple's Own Published Standards Violated Chinese Law!
Chinese law limits weekly work time to 49 hours but "industry code" and Apple's standards limits weekly hours to 60. That Apple's (and other companies) own published standards violate even Chinese law demonstrates they were aware they were ignoring the law and using what they could get out of the workers. It demonstrates that these companies are knowingly engaged in illegal exploitation of workers, for profit. It also demonstrates that the Chinese government has been ignoring its own laws.
The Washington-based Fair Labor Association says Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., the Taiwanese company that runs the factories, is committing to reducing weekly work time to the legal Chinese maximum of 49 hours.
That limit is routinely ignored in factories throughout China. Auret van Heerden, the CEO of the FLA, said Hon Hai is the first company to commit to following the legal standard.
Apple's and FLA's own guidelines call for work weeks of 60 hours or less.
In a PR attempt to soften the impact of the FLA report, Apple's suppliers made promises to improve.
New York Times, "Electronic Giant Vowing Reforms in China Plants",
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.
And, get this, they promise to start obeying the law -- by July of next year,
Foxconn's promises include a commitment that by July of next year, no worker will labor for more than 49 hours per week -- the limit set by Chinese law.
The Washington Post: "Pledge by Apple's iPhone manufacturer in China could set off new round of wage hikes",
Foxconn, owned by Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., promised to limit hours while keeping total pay the same, effectively paying more per hour. Foxconn is one of China's biggest employers, with 1.2 million workers who also assemble products for Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.
From the HuffPost story,
The report will include new promises by Apple that stand to be just as empty as the ones made over the past five years," said SumOfUS.org, a coalition of trade unions and consumer groups, ahead of the release of the report.
And from the TPM story,
"For months now, SumOfUs.org members have been calling on Apple to clean up the working conditions in its supply chain in time to produce the next iPhone be the first ethical iPhone," the spokesperson told TPM, "That hasn't changed at all. Our campaign is going to continue until real workers see real improvements -- and so far Apple has been all talk and no action."
This is one of those "believe it when we see it" situations. Phrases like "lip service" come to mind. We'll see. Apple's supplier promises to start obeying the law -- by July of next year! Wow.
But here is a question: Where is our government on this?
American companies are breaking laws overseas, exploiting workers and violating human rights standards. They are hoarding the resulting cash offshore to avoid paying their taxes, when we have a national deficit. These actions by these companies are wiping out our jobs and communities. Where is our government on this?