Peter Schnall and Erin Wigger
Under pressure from the media and labor rights organizations after a spate of suicides at the Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant, Apple hired the U.S.-based Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct an independent audit of working conditions at the plant.
The FLA report (released this past March and based on 35,500 worker interviews) identified numerous major problems including very long work hours (up to 80 hours per week), excessive and often unpaid overtime, as well as safety violations. In response to the report Apple and Foxconn both pledged their commitment to improving conditions by cutting workloads, improving safety protocols and bettering worker dormitories (1). But have they?
There is some evidence of change at Foxconn. In response to the FLA report they raised the wages of some workers in Shenzhen by 16 to 25 percent (2, 3). They have also reportedly dropped the number of overtime hours worked though the exact total now being worked is unclear. Chinese labor laws permit a maximum of 49 hours per week.
Despite the higher hourly wages, Foxconn’s compliance with Chinese weekly work limits has resulted in an average overall decrease in salaries for many. Though hourly cuts may better the physical health of workers who said they experienced pain and fatigue after long shifts, many reported to the FLA that, because their wages “were not sufficient to pay for health care or education, ….they wanted to work more to earn more money” (4, 5). Additionally workers now complain that they are forced to work unpaid overtime and are even less able to support themselves and their extended families without the extra income earned through overtime. (6, 7). There is also some debate as to whether work hours have actually been cut, and if so by how much. The China Labor Watch (CLW) reports in their June 27th publication on Apple suppliers in China that work hours at the plant still far exceed 49 (8).
So far, changes at the plant seem more geared at appeasing the press than actually improving the health and safety of their workers. It’s hard to imagine that the Chinese government is unaware of working conditions at Foxconn plants and that they have not given tacit approval to Foxconn policies. This is particularly true in light of the fact that the FLA found 43 instances of Foxconn violations of Chinese labor laws and regulations, only one of which seems to have been partially remedied (work hours) (5, 9).
According to Foxconn workers interviewed by CLW, nothing appears to have been done about existing physical environmental hazards and they are quoted as saying that “there are occupational hazard issues in some workshops, mainly radiation, chemicals and dust. Even though the factory provided occupational safety and health training to workers, there is little content, making the training largely symbolic.” Joint, musculoskeletal, and other types of injuries due to jobs with repetitive motions have also not been addressed.
In their investigation the FLA found that many workers did not realize that there was union representation and if they did they doubted that the unions available to them provided “true worker representation” due to the fact these groups are dominated by management-selected nominees, (4, 5). Following the FLA study, workers interviewed by both CLW and Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM ) were still unaware of their overall rights as workers and whether or not they themselves were represented by any sort of union (7, 8). Of course, functional unions representing worker’s interests have proven themselves critical to the process of improving working conditions.
Additionally, there is also a conspicuous lack of news on changes addressing non-work conditions – such as quality of food (which many Foxconn workers complain is unhygienic and tasteless) and poor living accommodations (see CLW report), – even though both Apple and Foxconn promised improvements to the over-crowded worker dormitories.
One important issue continues to be ignored and this is the poor psychosocial work environment at the plants and the role work stressors play in the negative health outcomes of workers. Work stressors include, work intensity and speed-up, long work hours (this appears to have been partially addressed), organizational justice, effort-reward imbalance, low social support, job strain and threat-avoidant vigilance, to name a few. The FLA as well as CLW either ignore psychosocial factors or aren’t aware of their importance. Nor has anyone examined the impact of these psychosocial stressors on the negative psychological health outcomes plaguing this population of workers - observable by the significant number of suicides the plant has experienced over the last few years. Until these issues are addressed work life at Foxconn will not significantly improve and we can expect continued and perhaps increasing negative health outcomes.