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China Plant Again Faces Labor Issue on iPhones

As Apple prepares to unveil the latest iPhone this week, the company’s manufacturing partner in China, Foxconn Technology, is coming under renewed criticism over labor practices after reports that vocational students were being compelled to work at plants making iPhones and their components.

Chinese workers assemble electronic components at the Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen.
AFP | Getty Images
Chinese workers assemble electronic components at the Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen.

Foxconn has acknowledged using student “interns” on manufacturing lines, but says they are free to leave at any time. But two worker advocacy groups said Monday that they had spoken with students who said they had been forced by their teachers to assemble iPhones at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, in north-central China.

Additionally, last week Chinese state-run news media reported that several vocational schools in the city of Huai’an, in eastern China, required hundreds of students to work on assembly lines at a Foxconn plant to help ease worker shortages. According to one of the articles, Huai’an students were ordered to manufacture cables for Apple’s new iPhone 5, which is expected to be introduced on Wednesday.

“They said they are forced to work by the teachers,” Li Qiang, founder of China Labor Watch, one of the advocacy organizations and a frequent critic of Foxconn’s labor policies, said in an interview on Monday. Mr. Li said his staff had spoken with multiple workers and students who, as recently as Sunday, said that 10 of 87 workers on an iPhone assembly line were students.

“They don’t want to work there — they want to learn,” said Mr. Li. “But if they don’t work, they are told they will not graduate, because it is a very busy time with the new iPhone coming, and Foxconn does not have enough workers without the students.”

Foxconn, in a statement, said that students made up just 2.7 percent of its 1.2 million-person work force in China — about 32,000 workers — and that schools “recruit the students under the supervision of the local government, and the schools also assign teachers to accompany and monitor the students throughout their internship.”

A spokesman for Apple declined to comment on the recent cases, but he said Apple’s code of conduct does require its suppliers to follow local labor laws when dealing with interns and other workers.

Foxconn has come under intense scrutiny in recent months over working conditions inside factories that manufacture smartphones, tablet computers and other electronic devices for Apple, Dell , Hewlett-Packard and other technology giants. Investigations by newspapers, outside groups and companies like Apple itself have revealed illegal amounts of overtime, crowded working conditions, under-age workers, improper disposal of hazardous waste and, in some cases, industrial accidents that have killed four people and injured more than 100.

Earlier this year, following highly publicized reports of such problems, Apple asked an outside organization to audit working conditions inside the plants where the bulk of iPhones, iPads and other Apple products are built. In the wake of that audit, Foxconn announced it would significantly raise wages for many of its employees and reduce overtime hours to come into compliance with Chinese law.

In August, the Fair Labor Association — the group hired by Apple to audit Foxconn — said Foxconn had made progress at cutting employees’ hours and improving working conditions, but that those shifts would require Foxconn to recruit “tens of thousands of extra workers.” The group also said that Foxconn and Apple had adopted policies to make sure that student interns knew they could resign from Foxconn and still graduate, and to link the jobs they performed inside Foxconn with their studies.

“I am concerned about these recent reports, and we’re following up,” said Auret van Heerden, president and chief executive of the Fair Labor Association, in an interview. “If there have been any breakdowns in policies, we expect changes to be made.”

Worker advocates say Foxconn is under intense pressure at critical moments — like leading up to the release of a new product, like the iPhone 5 — to fill huge orders quickly.

“When students enroll in vocational schools, they should receive a genuine education,” said Debby Chan Sze Wan with Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, the other group that spoke to interns. “Standing in a factory, doing the same motion for 10 hours a day, this is not an education. And they are told they cannot leave, that they must work or they will be dismissed from school.”

Articles in the Chinese press reported that some schools in Huai’an were closed so that students could work in Foxconn plants, and that students said they were forced to work 12 hours a day. Some of the students are said to have come from the law and English departments.

Foxconn has strongly defended its labor practices, complaining that the company is unfairly scrutinized because it is the biggest manufacturer for Apple, the world’s best-known consumer electronics company. Analysts say labor abuses — including improper use of student labor — also occur at factories producing goods for Samsung, Nokia and other brands.

Last week, Samsung promised to improve management and working conditions at some Chinese suppliers after a labor rights groups issued a report that said the suppliers were using underage workers.

No company, however, has received more attention than Foxconn. A few years ago, a rash of suicides were reported at its factories. While the suicides were a tiny fraction of its employees, labor experts began questioning what they called a militarylike atmosphere within the company.

Apple responded soon after by sending a team to China, including a delegation led by Tim Cook, now the company’s chief executive, to look into labor conditions.

Within a year, several explosions at Foxconn plants in China highlighted the need to improve worker safety. More recently, recurring reports about how local governments and Chinese vocational schools coordinate with the company to fill worker vacancies have alarmed some labor groups.

After the recent allegations, local officials in Huai’an issued a statement ordering higher education institutions to strictly follow policies and correct any “violations.” The Huai’an government also said many vocational students had ended their work at Foxconn and returned to school.

“The university told us it’s a good way to experience corporate culture,”a 19-year-old student told China Daily newspaper. “Even though many of my classmates are reluctant to go to Foxconn, our teachers still asked us to work there starting in August.”

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