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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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