China watchers will be well aware of the story by now. Most of the shiny tech kit we buy in the western world is produced in conditions ranging from ‘challenging’ to downright miserable. Apple provider Foxconn is often highlighted as a prime offender but the depressing truth is that it is one of the better employers. As long as labour rights abuses continue, though, they should continue to be reported.
The below is a piece I wrote up from my chat with IHS analyst Tom Dinges:
Half of China-based OEMs still don’t require third party audits of their manufacturing providers despite many high profile cases emerging this year involving serious breaches of labour laws and widespread strikes, according to market watcher IHS iSuppli.
The supply chain analyst revealed the news as part of a wider survey of the global technology industry.
Over the past year incidents at factories belonging to Apple supplier Foxconn, as well as plants run by contract manufacturer VTech and Samsung provider HEG Electronics, among others, have highlighted the poor level of compliance with local laws at many plants.
Although China has strict labour laws which prevent children under the age of 16 working, keep working hours and overtime to manageable levels and prohibit discrimination, they are poorly enforced.
Not-for-profit groups including China Labour Watch and Hong Kong-based SACOM have time and again uncovered incidents alleging such rules have been broken, with reports claiming physical violence, bullying and filthy living conditions are the norm in many factories.
Staff dissatisfaction comes to a boil periodically in the form of strikes or bouts of violence. In October it was claimed that thousands staged a walk out at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory where the iPhone 5 was being made, while a month earlier, scores of workers were hospitalised after a mass brawl at a managed dorm near Foxconn’s Taiyuan plant.
“There are aspects of the labour laws many firms turn a blind eye to for the sake of satisfying their customers and getting products out of the door,” IHS analyst Tom Dinges told me.
“Considering how much of the supply chain is embedded in China it’s too costly to move to another region so the issue is ‘what do we do to ensure our suppliers adhere to the local labour laws they’re supposed to?’.”
Dinges added that the ‘headline risk’ of bad publicity, especially as it filters down to middle America through regional media outlets, should be forcing change on this front.
Foxconn is one notable supplier which seems to be taking a lead on this, having agreed with Apple to on-going audits by the Fair Labor Association, although worrying cases of rights abuses continue to emerge at some of its plants.
China Labor Watch also claimed at a Congressional hearing in the summer that the audit process is flawed in many cases, with widespread bribery and collusion on the part of suppliers and auditing companies.
Dinges said that as the industry matures this situation should improve, with auditors taking their cue from financial investigators.
“These organisations will have to meet a certain expected level of authenticity, vigour and independence,” he added.
“We’re past the stage of hyper growth. Now a lot of what is produced there ends up staying in China. If that’s the case then the factory employee is also a customer and you want to be sure to treat your customers well.”
This time it was Samsung that had its supplier factories investigated, and what was revealed, as always, was not pretty.
HEG Electronics’ plant in Guangdong – which apparently makes phones, MP3 players and other electrical kit for the Korean giant – was infiltrated by spies from not-for-profit China Labor Watch, yup, the same group that warned of severe irregularities in the auditing system of the tech supply chain.
The same old problems came to light as at Foxconn and VTech, of low pay, staff bullying and physical abuse, dangerous working conditions and forced and excessive overtime.
However, HEG was also accused of employing kids as young as 14 year’s old – illegal even in China –and paying them, and the huge intake of student interns it uses to man its factory, just 70 per cent of their rightful salary.
To its credit, Samsung did respond with a little more than we got from VTech and its customers:
Samsung Electronics has conducted two separate on-site inspections on HEG’s working conditions this year but found no irregularities on those occasions.
Given the report, we will conduct another field survey at the earliest possible time to ensure our previous inspections have been based on full information and to take appropriate measures to correct any problems that may surface.
Samsung Electronics is a company held to the highest standards of working conditions and we try to maintain that at our facilities and the facilities of partner companies around the world.
The issue here again goes back to the validity of the inspections. Unless they are independent – conducted for example by not-for-profits like China Labor Watch – and unannounced then they are virtually useless.
Samsung, if you remember, was highlighted as a client of Intertek, the professional auditing company that has in the past been found guilty of accepting bribes from clients in return for passing a clean bill of health.
There’s no suggestion that happened at its HEG audits, but it’s clear that the audit card should no longer be accepted as a reasonable explanation of such irregularities.