Foxconn, a large technology manufacturer in China has a cluster of suicides. This issue is getting more attention than normal in Western media because the company manufactures products for Apple and the Apple iPad went on sale around the world at the same time news about the suicides broke.
The question that must be asked is “is this a Foxconn problem or an Apple problem?”
Accurate worker safety news is notoriously difficult to obtain from China as many of the issues associated with the safety of coal mines has shown over the last decade. Western reports must be considered carefully to try to determine facts, or as accurate information as possible.
- To date, there have been around 12 suicides.
- All have been the result of jumping off a building.
- The victims are all under 25 years of ages and have been working for Foxconn for no more than 12 months.
- Employees live on the premises.
- Nets have been installed around the buildings to stop deaths.
Two Reuters video reports are available online, here and here but one includes comments from an unidentified person so that person’s information and authority is dubious. Safety audit reports of both Foxconn and Apple are quoted below.
A 28 May 2010 interview with Jenny Chan of the Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour is available online through the 3CR radio program, Asia-Pacific Currents.
Other media attention about working conditions in China have occurred regularly over the last twenty years as the manufacturing sector has expanded throughout Asia. But in most of those situations, the focus had been on the obligations of either the parent company or the retailer of the goods. In the current Foxconn situation, few fingers are being pointed at Apple.
Foxconn’s corporate social responsibility statement is available online, although the latest is 2008. Its pledges on OHS and working conditions would not seem out-of-place in any similar Western report:
“We make every effort to eliminate workplace hazards and provide safe, healthy and comfortable living conditions for our employees. Our safety culture is founded on the premise that all injuries are preventable. To this end, we have established “zero incidents and zero injuries” as our goal. We pursue this goal through a culture of continuous improvement in which all incidents are reported and investigated, and the root causes are resolved. We believe that safety and health is a journey of continuous improvement and eternal diligence. We are never satisfied with our accomplishment and will continue to take steps to improve the safety and health of all of our employees.”
A clear breach of these public commitment would be part of the reason behind the executive’s apology seen in one of the videos above.
“The companies we do business with must provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made.”
In 2009 Apple audited its suppliers and found that there was a 98% compliance. [It is important to note that the progress report does not name the suppliers that were audited]
“… our audits identified 17 core violations: eight violations involving excessive recruitment fees; three cases where underage workers had been hired; three cases where our supplier contracted with non certified vendors for hazardous waste disposal; and three cases of falsified records provided during the audit.”
Apple stated that working hours maxima were violated across several sites but ask yourself whether you would accept these working hours or expect your employees to accept these working hours:
“Apple’s Code sets a maximum of 60 work hours per week and requires at least one day of rest per seven days of work, while allowing exceptions in unusual or emergency circumstances.” (emphasis added)
Excessive working hours is not listed as one of the 17 “core violations” in the Apple progress report. The Supplier Code of Conduct specifies that the 60 hours maximum includes overtime
In 2007 Garrett D Brown stated that:
“Under Chinese labor law, working hours per month are restricted to 40 hours per week plus 36 hours of overtime for the month, for approximately 210 hours of work a month.”
“The factory has arranged for workers to take one day of rest every 7 days after May. Before May, they can be on leave for one day in every 13 days; if they take a day of leave on a working day, they have to work overtime for an additional day over the weekend. That is to say, some workers are on the line every day of the month.”
Until May 2010, workers may have had only on day of rest in every 13, clearly breaching Apple’s own requirements.
Is satisfying the consumerist need of Westerners for iPads an “unusual or emergency circumstance”? Would Apple consider applying “fair trade” conditions to its iPads and iPhones? Would Apple’s Code even meet fair trade conditions?
It is early days in the investigation of suicides at Foxconn but SafetyAtWorkBlog is reassured that the work of NGOs in the region will identify any breaches of Chinese OHS law and violations (core or otherwise) of local and overseas corporate commitments.
The suicides are tragic and we are not aware of the impact to the workers’ families from this loss of a relative nor the potential economic impact on families. The suicides should prick our consciences when we lust over an iPhone or an iPad. We should ask ourselves whether we are purchasing “blood tech”?
An important book on corporate codes of conduct was produced by the Asia Monitor Resource Centre and is available for download for free – A Critical Guide to Corporate Codes of Conduct – Voices From the South
Update 3 June 2010
A short email exchange between an Apple customer and Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the Foxconn suicides is circulating through the IT websites.