Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A 15-year old worker dies of pneumonia at Pegatron! Was it preventable?

China Labor Watch and the New York Times reported this past December 11th on another death at Pegatron’s Shanghai plant (an Apple Corporation contracted supplier of the new iPhone 5C) that employs 100,000 Chinese workers (1,3).

On October 9th Shi Zhaokun, a 15-year-old Chinese laborer, checked himself into a hospital and passed away shortly thereafter of pneumonia. Shi had been hired using his cousin’s identity card that stated he was 20 (1, 3). The legal working age in China is 16. Documents provided from his family show he had worked 79 hours in his first week, 77 in his second and 75 in his third, all in violation of Chinese law (and Apple’s supplier responsibility commitment) prohibiting more than 60 hour work weeks. In his only month at Pegatron Shi worked nearly 280 hours, often 12 hours a day, six days a week (2, 3).

Pegatron claims his death cannot be attributed to unhealthy working conditions within the plant, yet China Labor Watch reports that there have been at least four other similar deaths of young people at the Shanghai plant in recent months (1, 2). Moreover, Pegatron had declared the youth healthy in a pre-employment physical only a month before his passing making it unlikely that a precondition accounted for his pneumonia. Alternatively, the screening exam was faulty and a sick person was hired. Either way, something is amiss (1, 2).

Apple sent its own team of medical professionals to assess the situation and they agreed in a statement to Reuters that Shi died of pneumonia and that there was nothing in the factory that could have caused the illness (4). We concur that the contraction of pneumonia from any one physical ‘place’ or hazardous ‘material’ in the factory is unlikely, but find it unsettling that there’s been no mention of what the physical strain of a 70+ hour work week for many weeks does to a young person’s immune system. We believe this added strain, if not the cause of Shi’s illness, was likely a contributing factor to the development and severity of his illness.

If this seems unlikely to you, be aware that there is an emerging body of research demonstrating a relationship between work stress, long work hours and impaired health and immune system deterioration (5, 6). Combine this with over-crowded living conditions and possible exposure to someone with pneumonia – is it really a surprise that he got sick? No it’s not, but it is surprising that he died. How was it that Shi’s illness could have gone untreated? Are there many unreported cases of pneumonia in this factory? What does it say about the quality of the medical surveillance of these tens of thousands of working people that this 15-year-old could get sick and die virtually unnoticed?

Li Qiang, who runs China Labor Watch  says, “Considering the sudden deaths of five people and the similar reason of the deaths, we believe there should be some relations between the tragedy and the working conditions in the factory,” (2). We concur.

5. McEWEN, B. S. (1998), Stress, Adaptation, and Disease: Allostasis and Allostatic Load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 840: 33–44. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1998.tb09546.x
6. The Workplace and Cardiovascular Disease, Schnall et al, Hanley & Belfus, Inc. Occup Med 15(1), 2000 http://unhealthywork.org/category/theworkplaceandcvd/

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Apple CEO Tim Cook supports rights for U.S. workers, but what about workers in it's supply chain?

Early last week Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Corporation wrote that workplace equality is “good for business,” in a show of his and the company’s support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) - a landmark civil rights legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees (LGBT) in the workplace - which was approved last Thursday in a landmark decision by the Senate (1,2). Apple’s own corporate policy prohibits discriminatory hiring practices against its LGBT effectively giving them more protection than they currently receive under Federal law (4).

Cook wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in the Washington Post,

            “At Apple, we try to make sure people understand that they don't have to check their identity at the door. We're committed to creating a safe and welcoming workplace for all employees, regardless of their race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation…

            Those who have suffered discrimination have paid the greatest price for this lack of legal protection. But ultimately we all pay a price. If our coworkers cannot be themselves in the workplace, they certainly cannot be their best selves. When that happens, we undermine people's potential and deny ourselves and our society the full benefits of those individuals' talents.

            So long as the law remains silent on the workplace rights of gay and lesbian Americans, we as a nation are effectively consenting to discrimination against them. Congress should seize the opportunity to strike a blow against such intolerance by approving the Employment Nondiscrimination Act” (3,4,5).

President Obama also wrote in support of the bill, pointing out the importance of equality and non-discrimination in the workplace and emphasizing the fact that the majority of Fortune 500 companies and small businesses already have nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBT employees saying,

            “These companies know that it's both the right thing to do and makes good economic sense. They want to attract and retain the best workers, and discrimination makes it harder to do that. …

            If we want to create more jobs and economic growth and keep our country competitive in the global economy, we need everyone working hard, contributing   their ideas, and putting their abilities to use doing what they do best. We need to harness the creativity and talents of every American" (6).

Though getting through Senate was a major success, ENDA still faces considerable opposition as by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and the Republican-controlled House (3).

The passing of ENDA would be a great and long sought after win for all those who support equality in the workforce and it our personal opinion that it is great that Apple supports this legislation. But dear reader, it’s hard for us to ignore the fact that Apple remains an integral part of a network of overseas companies (e.g, Foxconn and others ) that highly exploit workers whose socioeconomic status renders them vulnerable. Exploiting this vulnerability of its overseas workforce is a major contributing factor to the success and profitability of Apple corporation. If equality for all is truly what Apple is interested in, it should include ensuring that less privileged workers in the Apple supply chain are provided with a living wage and decent working conditions. What will stockholders think of this idea?  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Apple Supplier Pegatron Investigated for Abusive Labor Practices

Though Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Code of Conduct is one of the best in the technology industry, it still is having problems in arranging production of Apple products by companies   that do not benefit from the exploitation of workers by the violation of Chinese labor laws. This is evident in Apple’s recent decision to contract Pegatron, a rapidly growing Chinese company to produce iPhones, Apple computers and iPad parts. In response to these new production demands from Apple, Pegatron has grown from a workforce of approximately 50,000 in March to 70,000 workers today. (2,3).

The rapid growth at Pegatron has drawn the attention of China Labor Watch (CLW), a labor watchdog group whose dedication to Chinese worker’s rights and scrutiny of Chinese production methods has led to the identification of  many corporate violations of labor rights. Most recently, from March to July of 2013, CLW investigators went undercover inside Pegatron, and conducted approximately 200 interviews with workers outside of three Pegatron plants (1).

CLW reports finding 86 labor rights violations, including 36 legal violations and 50 ethical violations at these three Pegatron factories. Many of these violations are inconsistent with Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct (7). These violations were occurring at the same time Apple claimed it’s suppliers have achieved 99 percent compliance with it’s 60-hour workweek rule (the legal workweek limit in China is 49 hours). However, CLW reports the average workweeks at the three factories investigated are approximately, 66, 67 and 69 hours (1,3). Their finding flatly contradicts Apple’s June 2013 Supplier Responsibility paper that indicates a 46-hour workweek average for Pegatron employees (2,3,4). CLW also found that Pegatron’s Shanghai workers were forced to sign forms falsifying the number of overtime hours worked.

Other violations noted by CLW in their report include several forms of dispatch labor abuse (see earlier blog here on dispatch labor). Recent examples at Pegatron include withholding worker IDs so that Pegatron employees are unable to work elsewhere because they lack proper identification and recruiting companies withholding pay or fining workers for not working enough as well as not providing recruits with mandatory health insurance. Also noted by CLW is hiring discrimination, women’s rights violations, underage labor, contract violations, insufficient worker training, insufficient wages, poor working conditions (e.g., employees being made to stand for 10-11 hours at a time, employees provided gloves that do not sufficiently protect them from the materials used to create metal backplates for the iPad), poor living conditions (e.g., 30-minute waits to enter their production facility, tight living quarters, packed cafeterias and cold showers), difficulty in taking leave, labor health and safety concerns, ineffective grievance channels, abuse by management, and environmental pollution (CLW found metal-cutting fluids were dumped directly into the local sewer systems) (1).

This May, 2013 Apple championed its “success” in achieving positive reforms at Foxconn (another important manufacturing subsidiary) including higher wages and shorter work-weeks (1,3,4). While there can be no doubt that there have been some important positive changes at Foxconn the CLW reports regarding Foxconn (6) have brought the claim of “success” by Apple under renewed scrutiny. Whatever positive changes there have been at Foxconn are clearly lacking at the  three Pegatron factories CLW now reports on.

CLW executive director Li Qiang reports that their, “investigations have shown that labor conditions at Pegatron factories are even worse than those at Foxconn factories” (1).  Apple responded to CLW’s newest report with a statement, saying it is “committed to providing safe and fair working conditions throughout our supply chain” and that it had conducted 15 comprehensive audits at Pegatron facilities since 2007, including surprise audits within the past 18 months. It also confirmed that some labor brokers were withholding worker ID cards and demanded Pegatron “put a stop” to it (2,3,4). In fact, labor conditions at the Pegatron AVY factory are so poor that within a period of two weeks more than 25% (30 out of 110) new recruits quit (3).

Apple also indicated it would investigate the claims outlined in the China Labor Watch report, and take corrective action where needed. We applaud this stand but wonder if these steps will be sufficient as we have already seen that Apple audits are unable to adequately identify the realities of its supplier factories. In allowing its suppliers to continue abusive labor practices, Apple is facilitating unhealthy working conditions. Apple is clearly not living up to its own standards.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Center for Social Epidemiology 25th Anniversary Party

The Center for Social Epidemiology celebrated its 25th Anniversary this past May 17th at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. Over 90 of the Center's family, friends and colleagues were in attendance. Susan Holcomb and Sherry Schnall were honored individually for their unique contributions to the CSE over the years. Dr. Paul Landsbergis was honored for his many contributions to the field of work and health.

Music by Joseph Zimmerman and friends kicked off the evening followed by uproariously funny comedy provided by Alan Havey. These were followed by nostalgic and informative presentations about the history and future directions of the CSE given by Peter Schnall, Marnie Dobson and Paul Landsbergis. The evening came to a close with additional music from Joe, (tango) dancing and further merriment.

Here are links to Peter and Marnie's talks from the evening as well as a link to our website where you can also find pictures of the event. To those of you who attended, we extend our heartfelt thanks for your ongoing support. For those of you who were not able to make it, we hope the attached will give you a greater sense of the evening. You were missed!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

6th ICOH International Conference Panel on Kivimaki Article

6th ICOH International Conference on Work Environment and Cardiovascular Diseases panel on the Kivimaki article, which recently appeared in Lancet in 2012, demonstrating a statistically significant relationship between Job Strain and Cardiovascular Disease in a meta analysis of 116,000 European working people.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Please join us in celebrating the
Center for Social Epidemiology’s 25th Anniversary

May 17, 2013
The Westin Bonaventure Hotel

404 S Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90071

Please join us in the Hollywood Ballroom at 6:30 p.m.
for hors d’oeuvres, wine, entertainment, awards, thoughts
and more.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Foxconn to Hold “Union Elections” – Don’t believe the hype.

Foxconn recently announced workers would be able to vote for union representatives in its factories. The first election, scheduled for this July, is to be held in Foxconn’s Shenzhen complex (1,4). As reported by John Chan in a Feb 13th 2013 article, this is somewhat strange news as Foxconn claims it has already been holding union elections since the creation of the Foxconn Federation of Labour Unions in 2008. Chan argues this Federation of Labor was created in order to extend the policing role of the CCP’s state-controlled unions into the private sector (3,4).

The only substantial change to Foxconn’s 2008 policy reflected in the new announcement seems to be the inclusion of four “junior workers” from each of the 12 manufacturing sections in the Shenzhen complex (1,3,4). Though additional representation may help ease worker/manager relations it does not, given the small numbers of new representatives, do much to ensure collective bargaining rights for workers, nor does it give them any new meaningful leverage in their growing struggle for fair compensation and equal rights.

Independent unions are in fact still illegal in China, as are worker strikes, and the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) (see footnote) is known to frequently and publicly back employers and the CCP regime against the very workers they’re meant to protect. It also boasts ultimate control over all enterprise unions throughout the country including Foxconn’s union (3). In Foxconn, as in other enterprises, senior company managers, often CCP branch secretaries, run the unions rather than workers (4). This fact explains why many observers believe any new union representation in Foxconn plants is either A. largely symbolic and/or B. intended as more of a pressure-release valve for growing tensions between labor and management.

Not only does Foxconn’s recent move not impart any real increase in power or ability to organize for workers outside of its current system, but so far there have also been no additional protections being offered elected representatives (2). China has many laws that provide legal protection for workers, but most of them are selectively enforced, leaving worker representatives vulnerable to retaliation by management and party leaders. Cases have been reported where organizers were not only fired from their company positions but also detained by local police for weeks on end.

Foxconn’s latest efforts are seen by many observers as an attempt to stem worker unrest and avoid further negative news coverage. It may also be an attempt to preserve the CCP party’s power by averting protests, strikes or otherwise politically motivated upheavals by workers in China (1,3,4). It goes without saying that there is a lot of labor unrest and political demonstrations at this time in China (4).


The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was originally founded in 1925, after which it was repealed twice (once by the Chinese Nationalist government and once by Mao Zedong and the Cultural Movement) before being reinstituted once again in 1976. Under the new law independent unions were made illegal, effectively giving the ACFTU a government-controlled/sanctioned monopoly on unions in China – one that doesn’t allow freedom of association, collective bargaining or strikes to occur (4,6). In 2008 Chinese policy changed requiring Chinese, but also foreign owned companies to create their own SCFTU chapters. Though there was some resistance, most notably by Wal-Mart, most companies have chosen to join. This makes sense given the ACFTU provides no real security to workers and cooperation is incentivized with government tax cuts. The addition of these companies has driven membership rates higher and further solidified the SCFTU’s role as a “yellow” union by consistently acting to defend economic growth and the protection of its own political organ over workers rights. Companies that continue to resist are blacklisted and subjected to audits, tax examinations and accusations of labor violations (4,5,6).