A Closer Look at Apple and Foxconn: Labor Practices in China and Brazil

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On Wednesday, April 11, 2012, the Economic Policy Institute sponsored a forum titled A Closer Look at Apple and Foxconn: Labor Practices in China and Brazil. The panel was comprised of Debby Chan, Project Officer at Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM); Larry Cohen, President, Communications Workers of America; Scott Nova, Executive Director, Worker Rights Consortium; Luis Carlos de Oliveira, Vice President, Metalworkers Union of Jundiai, Brazil; Li Qiang, Executive Director, China Labor Watch. Ross Eisenbrey, the Vice President of EPI, moderated. Panelists shared their varied expertise and offered a detailed portrait of Foxconn’s practices in Asia and South America.

Ms. Chan, whose organization—SACOM—was founded in 2005 to monitor working conditions at brands’ suppliers in China, gave an overview of Foxconn’s history and organizational structure, noting that with 1.2 million employees, it is the world’s largest IT manufacturer. Ms. Chan ran down the long list of workplace abuses of Foxconn workers SACOM has documented, including low pay, forced overtime, health and safety violations, using students as workers instead of interns, military-like discipline, verbal mistreatment, and a management-controlled union.  SACOM believes these harsh working conditions played a role in the 14 suicides and four unsuccessful suicide attempts by workers in 2010. The company, however, attributed the suicides to personal issues the workers had. Nonetheless, they have responded by installing mesh nets outside of its buildings, making workers sign a no-suicide pledge, increasing wages, and limiting overtime, among other measures. SACOM notes that wage increases have been offset by cuts to housing and food allowances, and by inflation.

The next speaker was Mr. Oliveira, who discussed Foxconn’s entry to Brazil in 2007 from his perspective as an organizer. Their entrance brought about several changes. Factories that once employed mostly men saw more women entering their ranks as the products they produced shifted. Foxconn sought to impose similar wages and standards to those in their Chinese factories. Many of the newly-recruited workers came largely from the informal sector, and as such, were more likely to accept the conditions that Foxconn sought to impose, which were those that exist in their Chinese plants. However, the Metalworkers union was able to pressure Foxconn to raise its standards.

Mr. Cohen highlighted the sharp contrast in conditions for workers employed by the same company in Brazil and China. The difference, Mr. Cohen noted, was the creation and the strength of a worker’s party in Brazil, which helped establish a higher baseline for working conditions generally. He lamented the lack of will on the part of the U.S. government to protect the rights of workers here, and he stressed that while the upcoming election will be important, it is even more important to build a movement that represents the interests of the working and middle classes. The 99% spring, Mr. Cohen explained, is an opportunity to build that movement.

Mr. Nova discussed the public relations crisis the recent investigations and journalistic accounts of working conditions in Foxconn’s Chinese factories presents for Apple and Foxconn. While they may feel under attack, he noted that companies are not passive when faced with these kinds of accusations. Furthermore, this is not the first time Apple’s subcontractors have been accused of worker mistreatment, and Apple’s model for labor improvements—audits and codes of conduct—has been around for a long time and it has not worked. While overall Mr. Nova is pessimistic that conditions will improve significantly for Foxconn’s workers, two reasons that give him hope are the damage to Apple’s brand and the fact that Apple is rife with cash and can afford to offer workers higher pay and better conditions.

Finally, Li Qiang addressed the audience. He claimed that over the past six years, Apple and Foxconn have not made an real improvements in working conditions. Wage increases were offset by inflation, and the reduction of hours following the spate of suicides in 2010 were accompanied by increased work intensity—though they are working fewer hours, they are still expected to do the same amount of work they did when they worked longer hours. He noted that the FLA audit of Foxconn represents the first time that he is aware of Apple cooperating with an outside NGO. However, he was critical that the FLA was acting to do PR for Apple. When an NGO says the Foxconn’s factories don’t have sweatshop conditions, it undermines the work of his organization and of other advocates. Ultimately, it is Apple that has the power to improve conditions for Foxconn’s workers, said Mr. Qiang, and if Apple does make improvements, that would likely lead other companies in the industries to do the same.

Click here for more information on the panel.