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Foxconn improves worker conditions, but workers still aren't happy

A worker inspects a motherboard on a factory line at the Foxconn plant in Shenzen on May 26, 2010. A spate of worker suicides stoked anger about labour conditions at the Apple manufacturer's sprawling factory in southern China.

For the past two years, Apple has allowed independent inspectors to examine factory conditions for the Chinese workers who make iPads, iPhones, and the company's other iconic products. Today, the Fair Labor Association released its final report on three factories run by the Apple supplier Foxconn.

Apple agreed to allow the probe after a spate of suicides at its biggest supplier Foxconn engendered outrage over deplorable worker conditions at Foxconn factories. Two years ago, when this audit began, Foxconn was given 360 action items to meet. According to the report, Foxconn has met 99 percent of those items for the three factories that were inspected. 

But, while that may sound like a success, the one action item Foxconn failed at happens to be one of the biggest complaints from labor activists about the company. Foxconn was not able to reduce overtime hours for its workers under an average of 9 hours a week, which means that technically the company continues to violate Chinese labor laws. (Though, the overtime law is almost never enforced, and nearly everyone violates it.) According to the report, Foxconn was able to keep overtime for its workers below 20 hours a week, which is what the Fair Labor Association deems acceptable, which is a big improvement for the company.

But workers still don't seem happy. One worker, Mu Xin Xian, assembles iPads for Foxconn. She says she was not pleased about the reduction in overtime hours.

"I traveled far away from my village to work as many hours as I can so that I can make money," Mu says. "So when I'm told I'm not allowed to work much overtime, I can't make enough to live on."

Foxconn has raised starting salaries and salaries for some engineers, but for workers like Mu who have worked there for three years or so, they haven't seen those pay raises. As it stands, Mu makes just $2 an hour to assemble an iPad. It's clear that Foxconn has done a very good job at meeting the demands of this inspection and improving working conditions at its factories, which also has a ripple effect throughout the manufacturing industry in China.

But many workers wish Apple could raise their salaries to meaningful levels so that they're not being punished for the demands on Apple from the public to reduce their hours. 

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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