When a company forces its employees to sign a pledge not to commit suicide, you know the working conditions must be bad. Now Students Against Corporate Misbehavior, a watchdog group that has been investigating conditions at Apple supplier Foxconn's facilities, is disclosing how bad it really is.
SACOM visited four Foxconn facilities and talked with more than 100 employees in March and April to ask about working conditions. Two of the plants in western China are manufacturing Apple iPad 2s and Hewlett-Packard laptops. The other two plants in Shenzhen still have employees housed in dormitories with anti-suicide nets in place.
"While Apple commends the measures taken by Foxconn to improve working conditions, SACOM finds predicaments of workers remain. Workers always have excessive and forced overtime in order to gain a higher wage," the report said. "Workers are exposed to dust from construction site and shop floor without adequate protection. Even worse, they are threatened by potential harm of occupational diseases in various departments. Additionally, military-styled management is still in practice, characterized by 'military training' for new workers."
SACOM reported that throughout the investigation workers said they were used to the hardships of low wages, the potential harm of occupational diseases, work pressure, and exhaustion. It also reported that workers don't feel their grievances are spurring change and they have no choice but to submit to the rules and culture of Foxconn or resign.
"Foxconn has primary responsibility in labor-rights abuses. The clients, including Apple and HP, which declare decent working conditions at their suppliers, have indispensable obligations to put their promise into practice," the report said. "Taking labor-rights violations in Chengdu as the most problematic, Apple, the sole buyer of Chengdu plant, must take actions to improve working conditions at Foxconn."
Pressure on Apple
Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, sees a natural conflict to a resolution. Apple is cost-conscious, making it difficult to fund significant workforce concessions, whether environmental, financial or emotional.
"Apple's motivator is its image. Apple cannot afford to have its image tarnished because that would substantially reduce its appearance as a premium vendor and reduce its premium and profits," Enderle said. "Apple has been given a choice -- either take the pressure off the suppliers so they can treat workers better, or their top-line performance will be hit. It's an ugly dance and probably the only one that works against them."
In February, Apple released its 2011 report on supplier responsibility, essentially an audit of its overseas component suppliers and manufacturing facilities from a social-responsibility angle. The report came to light after 36 environmental groups in China launched a 26-page complaint against the iPhone maker. Accusations have ranged from worker abuse to inhumane working conditions.
"We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made," Apple's report reads. "Suppliers commit to the Apple Supplier Code of Conduct as a condition of doing business with us. Drawing on internationally recognized standards, our code outlines expectations covering labor and human rights, health and safety, the environment, ethics and management commitment."