Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Foxconn workers sickened by N-Hexane - a letter from 2 workers

The letter below was written by Gou Rui-Qiang and Jia Jing-Chuan, and translated from Chinese for SumOfUs members. They worked in an Apple factory in Suzhou, China cleaning iPhone touch screens until their nerves were permanently damaged by chemicals used during cleaning.

Dear SumOfUs Members and Friends –

You don't know us but you have seen our work. Until recently, we worked long hours assembling Apple’s iPhone touch screens in Suzhou, China. In early 2010, it was independently confirmed that 137 workers, including us, were poisoned by a chemical called n-hexane which was used to clean iPhone screens. N-hexane is known to cause eye, skin and respiratory tract irritation, and leads to persistant nerve damage. Apple admitted to gross labour rights violations more than a year later.

If more people know about what we went through, Apple will feel pressured to change so other workers don’t have to suffer like we did.

We have been pressuring Apple, and its new CEO Tim Cook, for years to compensate those of us who were injured working for them, and demanding reform of working conditions at their Chinese factories so that their workers don’t suffer like we do. Now we need your help as customers or potential customers of Apple.

We need your help to send a message to Apple before their shareholder meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23rd. We want to see a strict corporate social responsibility and reform of the audit system to prevent similar tragedies in the future. He will listen to you as current or potential consumers.

You’ve already signed the petition, and 82,000 others have too -- for that, we thank you. We believe it’d be symbolicly powerful if 100,000 people signed the petition before SumOfUs delivers it to Tim Cook on Thursday at their shareholder meeting. We’re really close to that goal, but we need you to share our request with your friends to get over the edge.

It has been over two years since many of us were hospitalized and treated but our debilitating symptoms continue. Rui-Qiang still can't find work because he can no longer stand for the long hours most jobs require. Jing-Chuan has to spend nearly $100 a month on health supplements.
But with all of us working together to pressure Apple to change, we can make sure what happened to us doesn’t happen to others too.

- Gou Rui-qiang and Jia Jing-chuan

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Are recent salary increases announced by Foxconn going to solve the problems at Foxconn?

by Peter L. Schnall, MD MPH

David Barbosa reported in The NY Times today, Feb 19th 2012, that Foxconn has announced it will sharply raise salaries for workers in its Chinese factories by 16 to 25% bringing wages to about $400 month which is $16 day (1).

This is a large wage increase but will it really solve the problems related to overtime as well as those due to the organization of work at Foxconn which includes a militaristic work environment, reports of punitive actions for rule breaking, monotonous work, lack of breaks, low social support, inability to talk with co-workers during working hours, among many other issues?

One psychosocial factor associated with work is called “effort reward imbalance” or ERI for short.  This model of work stress was pioneered by Johannes Siegrist and defines threatening job conditions as a “mismatch between high workload (high demand) and low control over long-term rewards" When ERI is present this results in stress and has serious health outcomes (e.g., depression and hypertension) See for more details about psychosocial work stressors. 

Long-term rewards include job security and possibility for upward mobility (promotion prospects) as well as wages. So raising wages may help here but the key issue is not simply the absolute level of wages but the nature of the rewards and the imbalance between effort and reward.  Workers by all reports are putting in enormous effort (80 hours of work per with overtime), and the rewards workers are looking for include support on the job, job security, opportunity for advancement and a sense of purpose (2). After all, what is the point of having money if one doesn’t have a community in which to live and a future.

Most of the problems reported at Foxconn have little to do with whether workers are receiving an adequate wage. This is implicitly acknowledged by Foxconn, which also announced yesterday that they would begin reducing “mandatory” overtime hours at its factories. Unfortunately 60 hours of work per week, which is the law in China, is not enforced and is also excessive and harmful.  Still moving toward 60 hours work/week with higher wages are both steps in the right direction.

When will Foxconn and Apple begin to acknowledge and address the issues of work organization, which many have been documenting over the past several years?  When will China enforce its own labor laws regarding work hours?    

Schnall PL, Landsbergis PA. Job Strain and Cardiovascular Disease. Ann. Rev. Public Health 1994, 15:381-411.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What is wrong with the approach of the Fair Labor Association to Foxconn

The following article "Apple iPad plant conditions better than the norm" was published in the Chicago Tribune on Feb 15, 2012. The article is an interview with Auret van Heerden, a famed South African Labor Activist, who is currently head of the FLA (The Fair Labor Association). The FLA has been asked by CEO Tim Cook of Apple Corporation to investigate possible violations of Apples Fair Labor Practices by Foxconn and other Chinese corporations that have contracted with Apple Corporation to produce iPads and iPhone. At this time, I have no doubt that Auret van Heerden is well meaning and knowledgeable about many aspects of working conditions in China and elsewhere. However, i have serious concerns about his comments as quoted below. I have inserted my thoughts in red after his comments below, which are in black.

Peter L. Schnall
Professor of Medicine, U. of California at Irvine

Apple iPad plant conditions better than the norm - Chicago Tribune 

Working conditions at Chinese manufacturing plants where Apple Inc's iPads and iPhones are made are far better than those at garment factories or other facilities elsewhere in the country, according to the head of a non-profit agency investigating the plants. 

"Far better" is not the same as "good" and certainly is not the same as healthy working conditions.  Yes, electronic assembly plants are clean and well lit. Textile firms don't have these requirements. Anyone who has watched "China Blue," the DVD that documents conditions in a China blue jean manufacturing plant knows that conditions in many Chinese factories are very close to slave labor. 

The Fair Labor Association (FLA) is beginning a study of the working conditions of Apple's top eight suppliers in China, following reports of worker suicides, a plant explosion and slave-like conditions at one of those suppliers, Foxconn Technology Group.

If FLA is just beginning a study of conditions at Foxconn, why is it that the President of the FLA is making broad statements, such as conditions "are far better" before all the facts are in?  There are many aspects of the work environment that are not detectable by observation alone (see comments below).

Auret van Heerden, president of the FLA offered no immediate conclusions on the working conditions, but he noted that boredom and alienation could have contributed to the stress that led some workers to take their own lives.

Well, it is hard to imagine how workers putting in 80-hour work weeks would only be bored. Exhausted maybe. I can understand "alienated" as it very hard to imagine putting in 12 hour workdays - 7 days a week - in a job with few breaks and no opportunity to talk with one's co-workers and not be alienated. In fact, the production line at Foxconn is a classic example of an alienated (cause (someone) to feel isolated or estranged) job. A sincere thank you to Auret van Heerden for acknowledging the possibility that the suicides at Foxconn may be work-related.

In addition to Foxconn, FLA investigators will later visit facilities of Quanta Computer Inc, Pegatron Corp, Wintek Corp and other suppliers, who are notoriously tight-lipped about their operations.After his first visits to Foxconn, van Heerden said, "The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm."

Well, maybe yes, if we are referring to just the physical environment which after all is designed for electronics assembly (sterile, clean, well-lit, etc). But there are other aspects of the job that are physical including standing in one place for 12 hours a day. There are numerous reports of workers developing swollen legs after standing for many hours without much movement. Also there are reports of numerous repetitive motion injuries (from repeating the same task again and again) as well as burns from dealing with solder and hot electronic parts. 

He spent the past several days visiting Foxconn plants to prepare for the study. "I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory," he said. "So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory. It's more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps."

Yes, Foxconn is not a textile plant in China, so IT may not be as hellish? But how can he know whether workers are suffering from burnout?  This is an internal emotional state assessed by a questionnaire - usually the MBI (Maslach Burnout Inventory). You cannot just look at someone and know if they are anxious, depressed or burnt out. You have to ask them.

He noted that the organization has been dealing with suicides in Chinese factories since the 1990s. So young people are committing suicide in plants all over China not just at Foxconn. This undermines the argument made by a number of apologists for Apple that the prevalence of suicides at Foxconn is no different than the population as a whole. This argument ignores the clustering of cases among young people. It does make sense that young people coming from farms or being forced off farms, confronted with horrendous working conditions (despite higher earnings than they had previously) might develop despair, especially if they lose hope that conditions will improve in the future.

"You have lot of young people, coming from rural areas, away from families for the first time," he said. "They're taken from a rural into an industrial lifestyle, often quite an intense one, and that's quite a shock to these young workers."And we find that they often need some kind of emotional support, and they can't get it," he added. Factories initially didn't realize those workers needed emotional support."Van Heerden dismissed the notion that his organization might paint a cursory and positive picture of Apple's suppliers.

But he already has been cursory by making comments without collecting all his facts. One thing seems clear to date about FLA and Apple Corporation, they appear to believe that 80-hour work weeks are not extraordinary. (Western countries have struggled for 100 years to arrive at a 35-40 hour workweek). Also neither Auret van Heerden nor Tim Cook have yet evidenced any knowledge of 1) the negative health impact that long work days and work weeks has on health, or 2) awareness of the impact that workplace psychosocial factors such as job strain, effort reward imbalance, social isolation, lack of social support from supervisors and co-workers have on mental and physical well being (see our website "Unhealthy Work" for much more on these noxious workplace exposures).

Companies that join the FLA abide by rigorous commitments, and their interests are balanced by non-governmental organizations and more than 200 universities that sit on the board of the organization with the corporations, he said,FLA evolved from a group originally convened by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1996 with the goal of reducing sweatshop labor around the world. Its board includes executives from sneaker companies Nike and Adidas. "Apple didn't need to join the FLA," he said. "The FLA system is very tough. It involves unannounced visits, complete access, public reporting”.

This is an excellent point but it is incomplete. Surprise visits focus attention on dangerous environments, underage workers, etc but ignores work organization and long work hours, as issues. But still – my hats off to Apple – they are moving in the right direction by asking for outside help.

It is a shame that the “outside help” aren’t more cautious with their statements about the quality of working conditions and we can only hope they are informed about the full range of workplace surveillance tools available to assess working conditions. "If Apple wanted to take the easy way out there were a whole host of options available to them," he added. "The fact that they joined the FLA shows they were really serious about raising their game."


Some 30 FLA staff members are visiting two Foxconn factories in Shenzhen in southern China and one in the central city of Chengdu. Each plant has about 100,000 workers, although not all work on Apple products.Over three weeks, some 35,000 workers will be interviewed about 30 at a time to answer questions anonymously, entering their responses onto Apple iPads.

Why are they using apple iPads? Isn't this potentially intimidating? Will workers not believe that Apple will somehow identify them and use the information provided to punish them?

Questions will include:

* how the workers were hired

* if they were paid a fee

* if they were offered and signed contracts and whether they understood them

* the condition of their dorm rooms and food

* if complaints are acted upon

* their emotional well being

These questions are ok, but they don't go far enough. What about breaks, rest time, social isolation, wages, workers perception of fairness and justice, questions about imbalances between effort and rewards. Promotions, job security, etc. Finally, at least one open ended question so workers can mention something not in already covered. These are the kind of items that any U.S. researcher would want to collect.

The data will be uploaded immediately and consolidated, and an interim report will be made public in early March. The eventual FLA report will identify areas the suppliers need to improve and offer suggestions, van Heerden said, "There might not be a clear policy on hiring, that could lead unwittingly to discrimination against hepatitis B sufferers," he said as an example, "There might not be adequate documentation that could lead to the risk that workers get hired with fake documentation, that underage workers come in . We can recommend very specific actions they can take.

Finally, my colleague Paul Landsbergis writes to me upon reading the above, “The biggest problem with the article is that it assumes that the FLA will make a difference. It has not made much of a difference since it was founded. The only way that working conditions will change is when the workers get the right to organize and collectively bargain. Anything else will be a sham”.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Letter from Li Qiang, Director of China Labor Watch to Tim Cook

To our readers,  

Below we are printing the letter from Li Qiang, Director of China Labor Watch to  Mr. Tim Cook, CEO at Apple Corporation concerning working conditions and the health of workers at Foxconn Corporation, a supplier of Apple iPads and iPhones. China Labor Watch is one of the foremost authorities on working conditions in China, a country with a seriously under-developed occupational health and safety infrastructure. China also appears to have little commitment to improving the  conditions of working people in China. In a subsequent blog this coming week we  will expand on the issues raised in the letter from Li Qiang to Apple.  

Peter Schnall and Erin Wigger

“Dear Mr. Cook,

…Although the international anti-sweatshop movement has recently trained its focus on Apple's supply chain, I find that the labor conditions in Apple's Chinese supplier factories are actually not the worst of the factories used by multinational electronics companies there.

However, this is what "not the worst" means for workers in the factories that make your products:

 - They have to work as long as 11 hours a day, 7 days a week with only one hour-long break during lunch. For this they only make about 2000 RMB a month, which at current exchange rates is only $320.

 - Those that work in the iPad case polishing workshop are exposed to vast amounts of aluminum dust and may be injured or even killed in an explosion should the dust ignite. This has happened twice in the past year. First, in May 2011 at a Foxconn plant in Chengdu (3 killed, 15 injured) and then in December 2011 at a Foxconn plant in Shanghai (61 injured).

 - At the factories of Foxconn, one of your largest suppliers, 13 workers committed suicide in 2010. Foxconn's response of putting up nets on factory buildings to catch suicidal jumpers indicates that it believes this is an ongoing concern, since many of the environmental factors that may have led to the workers taking their lives -- including long working hours, social isolation and loss of agency -- remain unchanged.

As a result, that Apple's suppliers aren't the worst in the Chinese electronics industry probably says more about other Chinese factories than it does about the ones your company uses. 

As you said in your letter of January 26th to Apple's employees, Apple has done more recently to improve these conditions, having disclosed its full list of supplier factories, made efforts to "inspect more factories" and "educate workers about their rights" and even "opened our supply chain for independent evaluations by the Fair Labor Association." This assumes that the problem is with Apple's suppliers, rather than with Apple itself. However, there are still two big questions that Apple needs to answer before it can truly claim that this is the case.

First, how can a company that claims to make working conditions a priority make such astronomical profits at a time when those making its products are obviously suffering? Recently, Apple has seen its profitability soar to new heights. In the first quarter of the 2012 fiscal year, Apple made $46.33 billion in revenue and made a net profit of $13.06 billion, its largest profit ever and one of the largest quarterly profits of any American company in history. And you, personally, received stock options worth $380 million shortly afterwards. Let's do some simple math. The $13.06 billion net profit Apple made in one single quarter is equal to the combined salary of 300,000 workers at Foxconn's assembly line over the course of eleven years. And the value of your options alone could pay for those 300,000 workers' salaries for that extremely profitable quarter. And remember, those workers have to work 240 hours a month or more and some workers are required to stand all day long without a restroom break.

Second, how can a company with as much control over its manufacturing process as Apple has not already know what labor conditions are like in its supply chain? From our research, the production processes (and by extension, the intensity of the work that employees have to perform) at supplier factories have been approved by Apple. Apple's quality controls mean that only those who meet the standards Apple design can get a production order. The raw materials the factories use have to be purchased from the suppliers Apple designates. As a result, most supplier factories manufacture products according to Apple's specific guidelines and have no ability to alter them.

We believe that the answer to these questions is that the problem is not a result of a few "bad apples," in the midst of the supply chain but is rather deeply rooted in your company's business model. It's a systemic problem resulting as much from decisions made in Cupertino, California as from those made in Chengdu, China.

We believe the most basic cause of the problems at Apple's supplier factories is the low price Apple insists on paying its supplier factories, leaving next to no room for them to make a profit. The demand for astronomically high production rates at an extremely low price pushes factories to exploit workers, since it is the only way to meet Apple's production requirements and make its factory owners a profit at the same time.

To be fair, Apple's problems are not unique. They are faced by the entire electronics industry and its customers as they attempt to manage a global manufacturing system that locates factories wherever the cost of production is cheapest. The key choice Apple has to make as a company is whether it will try to shift the attention of journalists and the public towards the individual factories that make their products, or will sincerely acknowledge its responsibility for these factories' deplorable working conditions and make systemic changes to its supply chain.

Over the years, China Labor Watch has sent many letters to Apple about our investigations of its Chinese supplier factories, hoping that we could work together to find a way to solve the problems workers face. But Apple has never responded. However, we now feel that perhaps the time for analysis has ended. There is a simple solution for the problems we have observed in Apple's supply chain. And it doesn't even involve raising the prices on the American consumer who buys its products. It is simply sharing a larger proportion of Apple's sizable profits with the supplier factories it contracts with, and by extension, the people who make its products. And perhaps if Apple's customers no longer have to worry about the ethical implications of buying an iPhone, it will be able to go on to earn even more in the future.


Li Qiang
Founder and Director, China Labor Watch

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Response to Foxconn Workers Threaten Mass Suicide Post

By Ellen Rosskam, Ph.D., MPH, Center for Social Epidemiology’s European Associate

The conditions described by workers at Foxconn are, unfortunately, not an isolated case. Foxconn just happens to be in the limelight right now because of recently reported worker deaths and its connection with Apple, which stands solidly behind its values of corporate social responsibility. Apple is in a similar press spotlight. Nike got the same kind of bad publicity when descriptions of its Asian sweatshops hit the Western press. Improvements in some Nike manufacturing plants were due largely to student-led movements across the USA, which threatened sales. For a vivid picture of work conditions typical in China’s manufacturing factories, watch the documentary film “China Blue.” The film documents, as an example, workers in textile manufacturing companies in China using clothespins to keep their eyes open while working, because of extreme sleep deprivation from working 18 hours/day (8 a.m. until 2 a.m.), 7 days/week. Those workers earn $0.06 (six cents) an hour, in other words $1.08/day, or $7.56/week. Workers at Foxconn on the other hand, earn $22/week - 3 times more than workers in textile factories.

More skills are required to work in tech manufacturing as compared to other industrial sectors (such as textile manufacturing) so wages will not be the same. Therefore, the focus should not be simply on wages, but the overall working conditions. While work conditions and wages are poor at Foxconn, the textile sector is even worse than the tech sector, and other manufacturing sectors are equally bad - they just haven’t been in the western press as much as Foxconn, Apple, and Nike.

It’s a positive sign that Foxconn made some response to recent worker protests and several suicides at some of their manufacturing plants (e.g. wage increase, payoffs to quit, counselors, introducing stress management programs, building safety netting around the factory.) Even so, not all of the promises made to workers were kept by the company and, the reality is that Foxconn’s responses just barely begin to deal with the working conditions in these factories.

No occupational health and safety or epidemiological data are available to assess what’s happening to workers in these plants, and no one knows what happens to sick or injured workers when they leave a company. If Apple is serious about improving working conditions in its Chinese suppliers’ factories, then its first step should be to ensure that occupational health data is collected.

Hopefully the information, training, and interventions being introduced in some of the plants will be based on state of the art knowledge and practice. For example, stress management programs being implemented by Foxconn aim to teach individual workers skills to cope with existing conditions. Unfortunately, these programs do not aim to change the causes of the stress, which includes excessively long work hours. Moreover, individual stress management programs have been demonstrated to yield more positive results when accompanied by structural changes in the organization of work.

If Management asks “where to begin?” the easiest starting point is to ask workers their priorities for change. Easy-to-use, low-cost tools and solutions exist, e.g. Barefoot Research: A Workers’ manual for organizing on work security[1] and Ergonomic checkpoints: Practical and easy-to-implement solutions for improving safety, health and working conditions.[2]

China needs, as a country, an occupational health system capable of monitoring the working conditions of its people. In addition, they need a solid social protection system that is proactive and prevention oriented. This system needs to be able to provide for the needs of workers who are no longer capable of performing in China’s modern workplaces.

[1] Barefoot Research: A Workers’ manual for organising on work security, M. Keith, J.Brophy, P. Kirby, E. Rosskam, ILO (Geneva), 2002 -- Mandarin and Cantonese versions are available from the Hong Kong Workers’ Health Center,
[2] Ergonomic checkpoints: Practical and easy-to-implement solutions for improving safety, health and working conditions, K. Kogi, I. Kuorinka, et al., ILO (Geneva), 1996 (2nd printing 2011) -- also available in Mandarin.