More Foxconn woes – the price of your iPhone 5

factoryAll the tech talk this week has been on the brand spanking new iPhone 5, which neatly shines the spotlight once again on the conditions at the Foxconn factories where it is assembled.

Now we all know Foxconn is regularly harangued by the NGOs for one misdemeanour or another. Labour rights violations at its plants have been highlighted time and again so I won’t go into them all again now.

The landmark agreement with the FLA and Apple was meant to set the tone for an improvement in pay and conditions, and at the three plants audited by the FLA things do seem to be progressing pretty well.

However, outside those factories there are still some disturbing reports.

The latest came from an undercover reporter from the Shanghai Evening News who lasted 10 days as a newbie worker at Foxconn’s Yu Tian plant, making iPhone 5 devices. Filthy living conditions, bullying by staff, forced overtime – the list of misdemeanours was usual Chinese tech factory fare, although interesting to hear it from a source other than an NGO.

Maybe that’s why Foxconn broke with usual tight-lipped tradition and issued a lengthy statement on this saying it would investigate and address any issues such as those found by the hack, adding in a rare admission of fallibility, that it is “not perfect”.

More disturbing news still came to me from an unnamed source, who claimed that 100 workers at the Taiwanese ODM giant’s Zhengzhou plant – also producing iPhone 5s – have been hospitalised after a food poisoning incident.

Now I must stress that Foxconn has completely denied this with the following statement:

Foxconn has checked with the relevant departments and medical facilities at their Zhengzhou campus and they have confirmed that there has been no such incident.

I haven’t been able to verify independently with the local hospital so for now I’m keeping an open mind.

However I think it’s pretty obvious that the labour problems in Chinese tech factories are far from over and will require the continued scrutiny and determination of the big name brands as well as the not-for-profits for some time to come if genuine change is going to happen across the board.

A final, if rather depressing footnote: Foxconn is still pretty widely regarded as a leader in the tech ODM space when it comes to pay and conditions in China.

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More trouble at’ mill (or Chinese sweatshop)

factoryMore news on the continuing plight of Chinese workers in tech manufacturing plants, and the apparent blind eye the major multinationals are paying to their condition, emerged this week.

Li Qiang, founder of NGO China Labor Watch, claimed to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Tuesday that the audits which most MNCs commission aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

He pointed to widespread bribery of auditing firms by the big name companies – basically, they bung a few thousand dollars and the auditors agree not to expose any problems in the factories which might require lots of money to fix.

Although Li didn’t accuse any outright of corruption, Dell, HP, Samsung and Apple were all said to have “severely flawed” auditing systems. He also exposed auditing firm Intertek as having been caugt in the past for accepting bribes.

Said firm has Samsung and Siemens as clients and a lot more tech companies besides.

Now the CECC is most definitely sympathetic to the aims of Li and his counterparts in other NGOs, and one can’t help thinking the reason they’re so keen to expose malpractice in China isn’t to get the workers a better deal but to force such a public outcry that US firms decide to bring jobs back to their homeland.

In fact, it was certainly mentioned several times at the hearing that US workers couldn’t hope to compete against factories where staff are paid a pittance and over-worked to the point of exhauston.

Whatever the motives, though, this needs stuff exposing – factory audits are commonly used by tech companies whose plants are found wanting, as a handy cure-all to keep the media and customers happy.

If they fail, there is literally no point – but we kind of knew that anyway. The only way to change things long term is consumer pressure on companies to improve working conditions followed up by independent and random inspections from NGOs.

Needless to say none of the tech companies above have come back to me.

The lack of response is not just typical of local PR failure – I’ll bite my tongue on that one for the time being – but endemic of the lack of transparency at these big tech brands. If they’re really confident in the conditions at the factories – dismiss such accusations out of hand, invite random inspections etc

Hopefully, as consumers and politicians get more savvy to what’s going on and start to ask more searching questions, these multi-nationals will find it harder to fob them off with the old audit card.

There’s a long way to go yet.

(More entries on this subject can be found here, here and here.)


VTech next in line for the Foxconn treatment

factoryJust finished a beast of a story detailing more depressing news from China of  human rights and labour violations in factories making tech kit for some of the West’s biggest brands.

Yup, it’s not Foxconn this time but Hong Kong-headquartered OEM VTech, which mainly seems to make cordless and fixed line telephones for the likes of Motorola, AT&T, Telstra, Sony and others.

The report into poor working conditions at its Guangdong factories list, if anything, worse abuses to those discovered at Foxconn. These include mandatory and excessive overtime; exposure to harmful chemicals; sub-standard living conditions; violence and bullying towards staff; and below subsistence wages.

It’s worth noting that VTech strenuously denies all the allegations.

I’m not disputing any of the findings of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, nor its deliberately confrontational tone and emotive, first-person testimonials from workers at the plant – after all it needs to shame the Western companies involved into taking action.

What is more interesting is what happens now that the genie is out of the bottle.

Motorola and Telstra reacted with shock, exclaiming that compliance with the law and their own codes of conduct are essential and that, if true, these abuses are unacceptable.

Fair play to Telstra for immediately suspending sales of any VTech products while it investigates, but it seems to me that large Western technology firms are more than happy to turn a blind eye to this kind of thing as long as the labour is cheap, the production costs are kept down and no-one is making a fuss.

Saying you mandate compliance with a code of conduct but never enforcing that compliance, for example, is less than useless. As is saying compliance with local laws is compulsory when you know that, as in China, local laws are not worth the paper they’re written on – they’re either not enforced or shot through with so many caveats that the employer can effectively do what they like.

There are those who say that improving conditions in these OEM factories will push up prices at the till.

Well, that is debatable given that the OEMs are making a healthy profit here and could probably stretch to curtains and mattresses in the dorms; better food in the canteens; and certainly stools for workers to sit on during their shifts, without pushing up the cost of production too much.

I think Foxconn was just the beginning. Any tech manufacturer that breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the buck stopped with Apple, better prepare themselves for a rather uncomfortable time going forward.

Bad publicity is the only thing that seems to spur these big name brands into action and as long as there is an appetite among the public to know what misery lies behind their latest shiny gadget then the stories will keep on coming.

Geoff Crothall, a spokesman for not-for-profit the China Labour Bulletin, told me that conditions like those highlighted in the report are endemic throughout factories in the Pearl River Delta.

The best that can come of the constant media scrutiny is that these brands and their OEMs are forced to institute regular inspections and improve living and working standards across the board, because the local government certainly isn’t going to.