FLA's Foxconn report uncovers labor violations

Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association, discusses working conditions at Foxconn's factories and the fixes that Apple and Foxconn are promising.

Kai Ryssdal: Something of an extraordinary picture hit the Internet around mid-day today. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, inside a FoxConn factory in China inspecting, I guess, the assembly lines where iPhone and iPads are made.

Today, in a probably not coincidental event, a group called the Fair Labor Alliance issued a key and long-awaited report on working conditions at Foxconn's factories. Auret van Heerden is the president and CEO of the FLA. Welcome to the broadcast.

Auret van Heerden: Thank you very much.

Ryssdal: We all have preconceived reports based on press reports and things that we've heard on the radio of what conditions are like inside these Foxconn factories. Let me ask you two similar, but different, questions. The first is: Did you see, when you were there, the life-threatening conditions that have been described -- exploding aluminum dust and hexane cleanser in the air, those kinds of things?

Van Heerden: We didn't. I'm glad you used the word "preconceived" ideas. We felt that it was very important to move beyond the stereotype and to really shine a light into conditions of work at Foxconn. In a way, draw back the curtain and perform a public service in detailing -- in exhaustive detail -- what it's like to work at Foxconn.

Ryssdal: What about then the second part of the question, which is work conditions. Did you see people with repetitive motion injuries? Did you see forced overtime? Did you see long work hours with no breaks? Those kinds of things.

Van Heerden: We did see long working hours. We did record that in certain peak periods, people had worked more than seven days non-stop without a 24-hour break. I would say that working hours is the key issue that Foxconn needs to get on top of.

Ryssdal: How long do people work? When you say working hours, what are we talking about?

Van Heerden: A little over 60. Something between 60-70 hours a week. That, of course, breaches the FLA and Apple code limit, which set a 60-hour ceiling. It also breaches Chinese legal limits, which set a 49-hour ceiling. We discussed that with Apple and Foxconn and we were very, very pleased to get an agreement that Foxconn will now move to compliance with Chinese labor laws, 49 hours, which really sets a precedent -- a very important precedent -- for the sector.

Ryssdal: What about the fact that a lot of Chinese workers go to the cities where these factories are, specifically for the higher pay that comes with those overtime hours. Our reporter in Shanghai, Rob Schmitz, has talked to Foxconn workers and they tell him they will suffer if they don't get the money that comes with this overtime.

Van Heerden: Right. They told us exactly the same thing. We looked very carefully at that and we correlated our survey data for satisfaction, contentment, and hours of work. We found that after about 52 hours, contentment started to fall off. They want the money, that's clear. But there's a noticeable decline in their job satisfaction.

Ryssdal: I couldn't help but note, Mr. van Heerden, in your report that Apple became a member of the FLA on the 13th of January, 2012 -- which is, by my calculations, about a week after the big Mike Daisey This American Life story aired in the United States. Which, as you know, got immense amounts of attention. Do you care that they joined right after that report or do you just want Apple on board just so you can have a say in these things?

Van Heerden: Obviously I'm very happy to have Apple on board and at the table and working with us to make these improvements. But let me just say that our negotiations with them had actually been underway for some years. They certainly started to reach a conclusion in the summer of 2011. So I know that this decision was made well in advance of that bad publicity.

Ryssdal: Auret van Heerden is the president and CEO of the Fair Labor Association. They're out with a report today on Foxconn, Apple's main supplier in China. Mr. van Heerden, thank you so much for your time.

Van Heerden: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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