Monday, January 14, 2013

Changes at Foxconn may not be sufficient

By Peter Schnall and Erin Wigger

As reported recently in the New York Times, signs of change can be seen in Foxconn’s factories. Protective foam has been placed on low stairwell ceilings inside factories and automatic shut-off devices have been added to many machines. Some workers have also received more comfortable chairs (1,2). Hourly wages are reportedly also up and hours of work per week are down. All this is supposedly good news for workers at Foxconn.

In fact, according to the Times, Foxconn has already carried out more than 280 of 360 changes recommended by the Fair Labor Association (FLA ref 2).

You might remember from our previous blogs, Foxconn and Apple both made numerous commitments to change working conditions at the plants after meeting with the Fair Labor Association (FLA), whose report  (released in March of 2012) identified numerous major problems at Foxconn including very long work hours (up to 80 hours per week), excessive and often unpaid overtime, safety violations as well as inhumane housing conditions.

Foxconn announced that by July 2013, no employee would be allowed to work more than an average of 49 hours a week (the limit set by Chinese law) and promised to increase wages so employees’ total pay would not decline when overtime hours are cut. Wages were raised for some workers in Shenzhen by 16 to 25 percent (6,7). However, despite the higher hourly wages, Foxconn’s partial compliance with Chinese weekly work limits has resulted in an average overall decrease in salaries for many workers leading to complaints by many who need the extra hours and the income to provide for their families. As we were completing this article China Labor Watch reported that workers at Foxconn Group’s Xin Hai Yang Precision Factory had gone on strike January 11th to protest low wages. (see ref 11)

The story from the NY Times also reports that other reforms are being implemented by Foxconn in areas like health and safety, environmental protection, compensation, grievance systems, workplace conduct and discipline, and termination and retrenchment policy though it’s unclear in the article exactly what changes are being made (2).

Even with these reforms, chronic problems remain at the plant. Envoyé Spécial, a 60 Minutes-like program from a public TV station in France, went undercover at the Zhengzhou iPhone 5 Foxconn factory and reported several days ago that it had found workers living in dormitories still under construction without electricity or running water. Reporters also met with lower-paid student workers who claimed they were required to continue working at the factory in fear of losing their diplomas as well as workers who claimed that much of their upgraded $290 monthly salary was still being absorbed by the company through housing, insurance and food (3,5).

Just this past September, (six months after Foxconn agreed to a Fair Labor Association request for new internship rules), two worker advocacy groups found that students in nonmanufacturing courses were being improperly forced to work at a Foxconn plant in north central China (4). One student studying preschool education said she was prohibited from quitting her internship and was compelled to work night shifts. Afterward, Mr. Gou of Foxconn issued apologies to wronged interns and the responsible official was fired (1).

Earlier in the year reports surfaced from Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) finding that the year's multiple Apple product launches put added pressure on the factories, allegedly pushing workers into overtime and forcing them to endure "humiliating" disciplinary action, including the writing and reading of confession letters, and manual labor duties like toilet cleaning.

This climaxed in early October when a riot broke out at the Chengdu, China plant involving thousands of workers after a clash with security staff. Dozens of Foxconn employees were arrested.  Only 12 days later, 3,000 to 4,000 workers at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant walked off the job when fights broke out between quality control inspectors and line workers on the iPhone 5 (8,9).

Though Foxconn has reportedly been training managers to treat employees less brusquely, foremen still use profanity and intimidation, workers say. “The managers speak in a manner that often feels like a threat,” said Mou Kezhang, who works in iPad quality assurance at the Foxconn factory in Chengdu (1). Clearly, the pressure on Foxconn for increased production of various Apple components has led to oppressive management practices and shortcuts to increase production.  

The important issue of poor psychosocial work environment at the plants and the role work stressors play in the negative health outcomes of workers continues to be ignored.  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. Recent research publications from China indicate that job strain and effort-reward imbalance may play important roles in the development of musculoskeletal disorders and also physical injuries among chinese workers (10,11). The FLA as well as watchdog groups such as China Labor Watch have ignored these 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. These issues need to addressed along with work hours and wages for work life at Foxconn to significantly improve. Without these changes we can expect continued and andd increasing negative health outcomes.

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2 comments:

  1. I greatly appreciate Peter Schnall and Erin Wigger's article on Foxconn. They have raised an important issue on occupational health and safety that has often been ignored by Foxconn critics whose emphases are mostly related to wage and work hours. Surely length work hours are not unrelated to musculosketal disorders, but this is a problem that should be highlighted.

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