Updated Apple faces increased pressure today after its manufacturing partner Foxconn was accused of using forced student labour and hiding underage workers during high-profile independent inspections last week. Foxconn also makes components for other manufacturers, but Apple is its most prominent customer.
The Register spoke to Debby Sze Wan Chan, a case worker at Hong Kong based non-profit Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM). The group has been tracking what is alleges are "involuntary labour practices" at Foxconn, which makes gear from iPads and iPhones to games consoles.
She claimed that local governments in China "repay" Foxconn’s decision to locate in their area by shipping off vocational students to work in the factories as interns in order to help cope with the high turnover of employees.
She alleged to The Register that these students are sent to these factories even if their chosen subjects bear no relation to the work they will be "forced" to undertake.
“We describe the internships as involuntary or forced labour because if they don't go to the factory they may not be able to graduate or they may need to drop out of their courses,” Chan told The Reg.
She added that according to conversations with Foxconn workers, the recent high-profile inspection of the hardware giant’s Shenzhen factory by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) was flawed. She said her group had received information in the form of allegations that the company had prepared for it by hiding illegal workers.
“I heard from Foxconn workers that underage workers of 16-17 years old were not assigned any overtime work during the audits,” she said. “It’s obvious that Foxconn prepared for the audits, although the FLA said they were unannounced.”
Chan said she’d also heard that another worker had been given three breaks – as opposed to the usual one a day – in preparation for the FLA visit.
Mark Natkin, managing director of China-based tech consulting firm Marbridge Consulting, said he was unsurprised at the revelations.
“I have trouble imagining an inspection, probably in any country, where management wouldn't tuck potential issues safely out of view,” he told The Reg.
“To get a truly clear picture of day-to-day operating conditions, agencies need to do not only a factory inspection, but also figure out a way to talk to a significant number of employees in an off-site environment where each employee interviewed feels confident he or she can speak candidly without fear of losing his/her job or of other reprisals.”
FLA under fire
Chan also reckons the FLA is “not really independent”, given that it is funded by large corporates, including – most recently – Apple, and its board comprises representatives of these firms.
FLA boss Auret van Heerden was criticised in some quarters for giving Foxconn a glowing appraisal after an initial inspection last week, although he dismissed suggestions of any favouritism towards Cupertino.
In any case, the time for inspections has already passed, according to SACOM’s Chan.
“It’s now time for Apple to ask ‘how do we handle the labour rights violations?’ instead of commissioning the FLA,” she said. “It had 229 audits last year so it appears Apple is well informed of the problems – excessive overtime, harsh management practices and exposure to dangerous chemicals – so it doesn’t need to come across as innocent.”
She said that although conditions for workers making products for other tech giants including Nokia and HP are hardly better, Apple has made itself a target thanks to publishing and publicising a more rigorous code of conduct for suppliers.