Foxconn, Apple agree to improve worker conditions

Participants dressed up to represent Foxconn workers take part in a protest against Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn outside an Apple retail outlet in Hong Kong on May 7, 2011. The company that makes Apple products in China is now pledging to improve working conditions at its factories.

The company that makes Apple products in China is pledging to improve working conditions at its factories. Foxconn says it'll hike pay and limit work hours after an investigation found the firm was regularly violating labor rules.

The reaction from workers? Not exactly what you'd expect. Take 23-year-old Song Shufang, who says, "I've worked at other factories before, and compared to them, Foxconn is much better. I make more money here. I'm able to make more through over time, but they don't ask me to work too much. But of course, I want to work overtime. That's why I came here in the first place."

FoxConn, by the way, employs some 1.2 million workers.

Stacey Vanek Smith: To China, where tech manufacturing giant Foxconn -- maker of many Apple products -- has promised workers a pay raise and shorter hours. That after the Fair Labor Association released a report critical working conditions at Foxconn factories.

Our China correspondent Rob Schmitz has been covering Foxconn and joins us now from Shanghai. Hi Rob.

Rob Schmitz: Good morning Stacey.

Smith: You've spent this week talking to Foxconn factory workers. What are they saying?

Schmitz: Well the workers I spoke to would all love a pay raise, but they're a little suspicious. Back in February, workers at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen that I spoke to told me they'd received emails from Foxconn telling them then they'd get around a 20 percent pay raise starting around March. I went back to the same factory this week, and I've discovered that most workers have not gotten that pay raise.

Here's another interesting thing: rumors travel fast in a factory town. Local landlords who rent their apartments to Foxconn workers have found out about this alleged pay raise. And many workers I spoke to said their landlords have now raised their rents because they thought all their tenants would be getting this raise. So for many workers, they haven't received a pay raise; and now their rent's going up. And they're angry for a lot of reasons.

Here's Foxconn worker Lei Xibin.

Lei Xibin: If they give us a raise, they'll make us work less overtime. I'm from a very poor village-I came here to work overtime! When we work overtime, it's a government rule that we receive time and a half.  I'm here to make money.  

Smith: OK, this worker says he wants overtime, but because of the Fair Labor Association report findings, Foxconn's promised to reduce overtime -- which seems like kind of a disconnect here.

Schmitz: Yeah, and all the workers I spoke to at Foxconn have traveled hundreds of miles from their home villages to Shenzhen -- many for the sole reason of making as much money as possible, so overtime is pretty important to them. But the auditors who conducted this investigation surveyed 35,000 Foxconn workers and they found that worker's attitudes about overtime starts to turn negative after they work 52 hours a week. So the takeaway here is that, yes, workers do want overtime, but generally they want it in small doses.

Smith: You spoke to dozens of Foxconn workers who assemble Apple products. How do they feel about their work and their working conditions inside the factory? 

Schmitz: Well overall, the message I got was, that compared to other factories that these workers would be qualified to work at, Foxconn was at or near the top of the list of places they wanted to work. So in that sense, they were happy -- but that doesn't mean they don't have complaints -- mostly centered around how their immediate supervisors make them work hours they don't want to work or how their bosses don't listen to their concerns about the workplace.

Many workers I spoke to said that the cost of living in Shenzhen has risen so high that they didn't see the point in staying there. Many workers told me that they were planning to return to their home villages and eke out a living there, because they've figured out they'll save more money that way. And it's sort of interesting -- big companies like Foxconn have already anticipated this, and have, in recent years, built new factories further inland, closer to where these workers come from.

Smith: Marketplace's own China correspondent Rob Schmitz, joining us from Shanghai. Thank you, Rob.

Schmitz: Thanks, Stacey.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.
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@rob_schmitz, statements like "workers do want overtime" should be made with caution. Without more context, that statement is somewhere between misleading & false.

No one, and I mean no one, _wants_ to work 60 or 70 hours at a fast-paced, RSI-inducing, monotonous job. Or even for 52 hours. What they want is to make more money. If wages were doubled, I'm sure most Foxconn workers would want less overtime, many would want none. (Of course, without a union contract, the choice would not be theirs-- but that's another story.) Like most of the business press, your comments here tend to treat wage levels at Foxconn as if they were established by some force of nature, not the human decisions of Foxconn and Apple execs-- who currently don't have to worry about pressure from an independent union to increase pay.

That leads to the other "blind spot" in this segment: the word "union" is not mentioned, nor is the fact that trying to organize an independent union in China can land you in jail. For a very long time. So when someone says (as you did on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show on April 2) that workers take jobs at Foxconn of their own free choice, that no one is forcing them to work there-- to say this without mentioning the lack of union rights is misleading to the point of falsehood.

This is especially important in relation to another point in the discussion of labor conditions in China: comparison with US or European industrial history. Many pundits argue that critics of the labor practices of Apple and other companies that employ low-wage, non-union manufacturing in poor countries are being unfair & unrealistic-- that China is just following the same path that the US or Europe pursued in the past. What's missing from this picture is the critical role that unions played in boosting American & European industrial workers' wages. U.S. auto workers didn't climb past poverty wages by some automatic process of history-- they had to fight for it.

Respect for international labor rights, particularly the right to organize, should be a precondition for access to the US consumer market. That's the basic rule for intellectual property rights, and labor rights are no less important. As consumers of the products that Chinese workers make, US consumers need to do everything we can to make sure that they're free to assess, and organize for, their own interests. That's a tall order-- but if we can do that, then questions of wage rates and overtime hours will take care of themselves.

(@rob_schmitz, I'd be very interested to hear your perspective on these points. You're a careful reporter & clearly a thoughtful one-- I'm interested in how you add all this up.)

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