Is Apple abusing its workers in China?

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It shouldn\’t come as a surprise that Apple, the company that made my smartphone (and probably made yours too), is committing atrocities in its factories in China.

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The reporting comes from two leading international research centers, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom). They are producing what U.S \’think tanks\’ are supposed to be producing: comprehensive analyses of life for 500,000 workers at two factories owned by Foxconn, which produces millions of Apple products each year. Their reports accuse the factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu of treating workers \”inhumanely, like machines\”.

The Guardian summed up the evidence and claims in Sacom and the Centre\’s reports:

  • Excessive overtime is routine, despite a legal limit of 36 hours a month. One payslip, seen by the Observer, indicated that the worker had performed 98 hours of overtime in a month.
  • Workers attempting to meet the huge demand for the first iPad were sometimes pressured to take only one day off in 13.
  • In some factories badly performing workers are required to be publicly humiliated in front of colleagues.
  • Crowded workers\’ dormitories can sleep up to 24 and are subject to strict rules. One worker told the NGO investigators that he was forced to sign a \”confession letter\” after illicitly using a hairdryer. In the letter he wrote: \”It is my fault. I will never blow my hair inside my room. I have done something wrong. I will never do it again.\”
  • In the wake of a spate of suicides at Foxconn factories last summer, workers were asked to sign a statement promising not to kill themselves and pledging to \”treasure their lives\”.

A manager at Foxconn, Louis Woo, \”confirmed that workers sometimes worked more than the statutory overtime limit to meet demand from western consumers, but claimed that all the extra hours were voluntary.\”

Woo also commented on the factory\’s suicide rates, a monstrosity in itself, claiming \”Suicides were not connected to bad working conditions. There was a copy effect. If one commits suicide, then others will follow.\” Woo is correct about the copy effect, it\’s very real and extraordinarily dangerous, which is why no worker should have a reason to commit suicide in the first place.

The workers themselves say that if they turn down excessive demands for overtime, they will be forced to rely on their basic wage. According to The Guardian, workers in Chengdu are paid only £125 per month for a basic 48-hour week.

All of this is quite interesting and really makes one wonder how much progress the international workers movement has made over the past century. A manager at a corporation, Foxconn, which produces over 100 million iPads annually, basically validated the legitimacy of what\’s called wage slavery. Furthermore, the workers themselves must start organizing and fighting this backwards, undemocratic system if they want any hope of controlling their own lives in the future.

China\’s ACFTU, a massive government-controlled trade union association, was recently thrown a bone by Parliament with some pro-labor legislation in 2008. This led to \”much apprehension\” in the businesses classes, says Chris Liu, a labor expert here with the US law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Many businesses think that if \”management can make decisions unilaterally, that is better than having someone slow them down.\”

For years, Chinese businesses have had their way with the communist party\’s ACFTU, which normally gives management a very influential say and the last word on who should sit on union committees. The Christian Science Monitor explained that \”only the manager and his deputy are banned by law from committee membership, but union chairmen were very often middle managers beholden to their bosses.\”

Has the Parliament\’s pro-labor legislation dented this regressive system put forth by the communist party? It depends on how far Chinese labor wants to go in achieving basic rights and justice in the workplace. The political system in China is all about stability, capital flow, and high levels of investment. Things like decent wages and humanitarian values often come at the expense of these non-egalitarian goals, and are therefore \’politically impossible\’. Still, We have yet to see how narrow and strong the barriers of China\’s political system are.

The Chinese Parliament considers \’stability\’ as a main priority, however, which is why the extremely marginal pro-labor legislation was passed in the first place. Between the massive worker strike that prevented a huge Honda factory from functioning and the bad P.R associated with the high suicide rates of factory workers, the government was socially forced to do something.

Whether the current legislation is enough is for the workers to decide, and as evidenced by Foxconn\’s recent malfeasance, it\’s simply shouldn\’t be.

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