Analysis First it was Apple and Foxconn, now Motorola, AT&T, Sony, Deutsche Telekom and others have come under the spotlight after a new report made shocking allegations of human and labour rights violations at the Chinese factories of technology supplier VTech.
Not-for-profit the Institute for Labour and Global Human Rights said it commissioned a private research firm to gather evidence and interview staff from one of VTech’s three factories in Dongguan City, Guangdong province, where around 10,000 workers produce cordless and corded phones, phone components and circuit boards.
VTech products made at the factory and its two other plants in the city are sold all over the US by big name retailers such as Staples, Wal-Mart, Costco, Sears and Kmart.
The firm also supplies all of Deutsche Telekom’s corded and cordless telephones in Germany; all of Telstra’s fixed line phones; is a major OEM for Sony and Philips; and it produces kit for Motorola and AT&T, the report said.
The VTech Sweatshop in China report alleges widespread abuses which even manage to top some of those levelled at Apple and Foxconn, including forced and excessive overtime; exposure to harmful chemicals; sub-standard living conditions; violence and bullying towards staff; and below subsistence wages.
During the peak season, staff work 68 to 71 hours a week, including 28 to 31 hours of forced overtime, apparently exceeding legal limits by 237 to 273 per cent. Those failing to meet targets are forced to work on without pay, while wages start at the basic legal minimum of 1,200 yuan per month – less than Foxconn’s basic of 1,800 yuan – and are soon eaten up by living costs, the report argues.
The Institute also accuses VTech of delaying the enrolment of its employees in government-mandated social security schemes for months on end, thus short changing them of up to $12m (£7.7m) a year.
Conditions force workers to flee
The most shocking allegations, though, involve treatment of staff and living conditions.
Staff are forced to stand for 12 to 15 hours a day, minus an hour’s lunch break where they are fed miserable looking victuals, and live in prison-like dorms with no curtains, air-conditioning or mattresses, according to the report. There are no showers and staff have to queue up to take sponge baths using buckets of water, it adds.
There is a strict disciplinary system at the factory. Erring staff apparently run the risk of being handed an Employee Criminal Record which could lead to docked wages, while managers are rewarded for reporting others’ mistakes, the report alleged.
Also detailed are what the Institute claims are first person accounts from workers describing their miserable lives at the plant, including suicides by co-workers and physical abuse of staff by security guards, although most of these seem to date from 2010.
Given the harsh conditions described above, it’s not surprising that as many as 80 per cent of staff leave each year, according to the report, even though doing so means they forfeit that month’s wages.
The report then rubbishes VTech’s own Code of Conduct – which talks of valuing employees, harmonious relations and open communications – with some pithy but unattributed responses from “VTech workers”.
The report urges action from VTech’s big name tech clients to improve living conditions; allow staff to sit during their shifts; reduce excessive production goals and stop physical abuse and bullying of staff, for starters.
Something has gone so terribly wrong at VTech’s manufacturing plants in China that it is difficult to know even where to begin to clean up the mess. VTech has a glossy code of conduct, which reads well and guarantees every labour right under the sun. But in reality, these factories are run like prisons, where workers have no rights, no dignity and no voice.
The good news is that there are so many corporations and retailers across North America, Europe and Australia sourcing production at VTech, that these companies have the power to speak out and demand change. Imagine if AT&T, Motorola, Wal-Mart, Sony, Philips, Deutsche Telekom in Germany and Telstra in Australia demanded improvement, this could make a world of difference for VTech’s exploited workers.