Unions are key to improving labor abuses in China



American consumers who are outraged to learn that sleek iPads and iPhones are made by underpaid, overworked Chinese laborers, take note: Long-distance support for workers who build for Apple Inc. and other companies is unlikely to have much impact.

\”Ongoing labor rights violations in China, despite years and years of consumer campaigns in the West, are testament to this fact,\” said Eli Friedman, ILR School assistant professor and an expert on labor in China.

More than one million Chinese work in production of iPhones and other products. In response to worker suicides and factory deaths, thousands of people have signed online petitions at Change.org and other sites this month supporting Chinese who work for technology companies.

But it\’s unlikely Americans will succeed in improving their working conditions, Friedman said: \”The only way that workers have historically improved their working conditions is not by relying on the benevolence of consumers, but through forming independent, democratic unions that have real power on the shop floor.\”

Apple, he said, \”pays lip service to the idea of freedom of association\” through its supplier code of conduct, which says: \”Suppliers must respect the right of workers to associate freely with, form and join workers organizations of their own choosing, seek representation and bargain collectively, as permitted by and in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.\”

That, Friedman said, \”seems a bit disingenuous when Apple has very consciously moved a majority of their production to China, a country where there is no freedom of association.\”

\”So, while increased consumer pressure or audits of factories is not a bad thing, the company is quite clearly avoiding the much more fundamental problem, which is that workers themselves are not empowered to have a real say in the workplace. And, I think that the lack of freedom of association is one of the primary reasons that Apple and other western corporations like doing business in China,\” said Friedman, a member of ILR\’s Department of International and Comparative Labor. \”But, there isn\’t much evidence to suggest that this is going to result in major changes in working conditions in Apple\’s supply chain.\”

After months of human rights criticisms about working conditions at Chinese technology plants, Apple Inc. this year joined the Fair Labor Association, based in Washington, D.C. The association began this month auditing Chinese plants associated with Foxconn Technology Group, the world\’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics, which employs more than one million Chinese in production of iPhones and other products.