The Fair Labor Association (FLA) has claimed Apple supplier Foxconn is ahead of schedule with a remediation plan in place at three factories to improve working conditions, but labour groups have warned that major issues still exist throughout Apple’s supply chain.
The FLA’s latest report tracks progress at Foxconn’s plants in Shenzhen (Guanlan and Longhua) and Chengdu, since the landmark action plan agreed between it, parent company Hon Hai and Apple back in March.
The report, which was compiled after on-site inspections and interviews with staff and managers, paints a pretty positive picture of improvements.
It found that 100 per cent of remediation actions due by 31 May had been completed and just over half of those actions due to be completed before the final deadline of 1 July 2013 have been finished ahead of schedule.
The report claimed Foxconn has improved its internship programme to ensure students don’t work overtime and that they are made aware they can terminate the internship at any time. It also said Foxconn has extended unemployment insurance coverage for migrant workers in Shenzhen.
The FLA added the following:
Many physical changes to improve worker health and safety have been made since the investigation, including the enforcement of ergonomic breaks, changing the design of workers’ equipment to guard against repetitive stress injuries, updating of maintenance policies to ensure equipment is working properly, and testing of emergency protective equipment like eyewashes and sprinklers. Foxconn has also engaged consultants to provide health and safety training for all employees.
One major discovery at the plants in March was the long hours staff worked, with 80 hours overtime per month not uncommon under a "are you sure refusing overtime is good for your career?" regime.
The FLA said Foxconn has reduced hours per week to 60 including overtime with the goal of achieving the legal limit of 40 hours per week including nine hours overtime without affecting pay.
“Some of the most challenging action items – such as compliance with Chinese labour law regarding hours of work – are yet to come, and FLA will continue to engage with Apple and Foxconn to monitor and verify progress,” the report concluded.
However, labour rights groups have argued from the start that such investigations fail to solve the fundamental problems in Chinese manufacturing plants.
“The audit system itself is fundamentally flawed. It only looks at the things the brand is interested in, which are almost certainly not the issues most workers are concerned with,” said Geoff Crothall, spokesperson for Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
Crothall added that Foxconn has been the market leader in China for a decade now, and although other electronics manufacturers generally try to emulate its improvements in pay and conditions, they don’t all have the financial strength to do so.
Another group which has been a constant thorn in the side of Apple and other big name tech brands is China Labor Watch (CLW), which last month claimed that widespread bribery is undermining the audit system.
In response to a request for comment, CLW founder Li Qiang sent the following:
Although the working hours at Foxconn have been reduced to less than 60 hours per week, the intensity of the hourly work has been increased. According to our follow-up investigation, the workers have to complete the workload of 66 hours before within 60 hours now per week. As a result, the workers get lower wages but have to work much harder and they are not satisfied with the current situation.
The harsh working conditions are by no means isolated to just Foxconn but exist throughout Apple’s supply chain. However, that report only focused on Foxconn factories. It is Apple’s entire supply chain system that should be responsible for the squeezing of workers.
A CLW report at the end of July into a Foxconn plant and nine other Apple supplier factories in China found the same old problems.
These included excessive overtime of between 100-130 hours per month; low wages; hazardous working conditions; unsanitary housing and cafeteria conditions; no social or legally mandated insurance.
It highlighted Pegatron subsidiary Riteng’s factory as particularly bad. Half of the workers rated its safety and health as ‘bad’ compared to just two per cent of workers giving this rating to the Foxconn factory, for example.
Debby Chan, a project officer at not-for-profit SACOM, also expressed concerns over standards in the wider supply chain.
"SACOM does not observe that other Apple suppliers have made drastic changes in working conditions, for example, Wintek," she told The Reg.
"This makes SACOM worry that the without public attention, there will be very little incentive for Apple and its suppliers to respect basic labour standards."
Apple couldn't immediately be reached for comment. ®