If you have never wondered about where your iPod comes from, perhaps now is the time to start. Investigators from the New York-based group, China Labor Watch, have uncovered the truth about Apple. According to China Labor Watch, the company has recently exploited as many as 70,000 people, partly for the sake of their newest profit-making scheme: the iPhone. Only last year Apple promised to clean up its supply chain, following a wave of suicides at it’s Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. But, Apple’s change in policy appears only to be superficial. Their latest subcontractor, the Pegatron Group, is accused of violating up to 86 labour rights in three different factories while producing iPad parts, iPhones and computers.
The specific crimes committed by Apple’s subcontractor include using underage labour and ‘interns’ aged 16-20; they require workers to sleep in dormitories of up to 12 inhabitants and share (cold) showers between them. Pegatron also forced all employees to work standing up 11 hours a day, six days a week. The environment people laboured in was abusive and a risk to their health. They were exposed to harmful chemicals and received inadequate training. Moreover, they were paid only $1.50 an hour, which is less than half of the local Shanghai income and not nearly sufficient to cover basic living costs. If this news has made you recoil from the keyboard of your MacBook, you are not alone.
The hypocrisy of Apple is truly astounding when the company’s official statements regarding labour conditions. Apple condemns bonded labour and excessive recruitment fees1. Yet labour agencies hiring for the Pegatron factories required charges of up to 500 RMB ($80). This equates to approximately 53 hours of work in repayment, which must be fulfilled before workers can quit. On their website, Apple proclaims, “We consider this to be a form of bonded labor, and it is strictly prohibited by our Supplier Code of Conduct.”2 Nevertheless, at one of the factories investigated, labour agencies withheld workers’ ID cards for up to 14 days, which prevented them from quitting. Furthermore, workers were forced to work for a minimum of three months or face a fine of 600 RMB ($98).
But how did these crimes go undetected and unquestioned for so long? Who is responsible for this exploitation? Contrary to standard Western views of China as a legally backward country, Chinese labour laws do not allow for this kind of conduct. For example, hiring fees are in violation of Article 14 of China’s Provisions on Employment Services and Employment Management. Even more importantly, working hours in China are limited to 49 hours. Apple’s official limit is 60. On average, though, the people at the three factories investigated by CLW (two in Shanghai, one in Suzhou) were working 67 hours per week. Employees were coerced into signing falsified attendance records, stating that they did not work beyond the legal limit.
Evidently, while China’s laws theoretically protect its citizens from exploitation, the reality is quite different. The regulations are subject to regional enforcement and adaptation: the minimum wage varies depending on locality, as do the maximum working hours. Some regions have less strict regulations than others. Thus, many companies circumvent the limits by applying to abide under another region’s jurisdiction. The enforcement of health and safety standards is also delegated to the State Council’s Work Safety Commission. This body has numerous responsibilities. Therefore, the task of reinforcing labour standards is entrusted to local council boards. However, government officials support these councils. These officials are also charged with attracting investment to their region. Hence there is a significant conflict of interests. Local and provincial leaders receive promotions and other benefits for improving local economic growth. The enforcement of health and safety laws, as well as other labour regulations, are the responsibility of the same authorities looking to attract investors from abroad and afar.
The scandal at Pegatron is thus symptomatic of far more widespread and deep rooted, institutionalised problems in China. One of these problems is the huge holes within the Chinese administrative system. These enable third party groups to feed factories with vulnerable people (especially internal migrants and underage individuals). Migrant workers, 70% of whom are women, are inherently more susceptible to criminal abuse because of the stigma attached to their status. They are more likely to take jobs with poor labour conditions and less likely to receive legal representation should they be the victim of a crime.
Arguably, the lack of accountability for all parties concerned lies at the heart of this exploitative culture. If workers refuse to work in one area, factories are at liberty to relocate to poorer, inland regions, where cheap labour is readily available. Chinese companies and even educational institutions are complicit in this system. Some schools require mandatory ‘internships’ at factories, which provides child labour on a cyclical basis. These internships slip under the radar of monitors and the child goes undetected.
As far as Apple is concerned, its customers are more likely than the law to hold it accountable for what goes on in China. It is bad for their sales if they are perceived as unethical. The issue of consumer responsibility is raised every time a scandal such as this one becomes known. Nowadays, people are more aware of their purchasing power. However, whether Apple’s shares are down because of their bad press is doubtful. And perhaps it is wrong to vilify this particular company. Apple tries to be committed to ethical manufacturing. It reportedly holds several audits every year to monitor progress towards better working conditions in China. It also tries to support the growth of reliable recruitment systems, acknowledging the problem of third-party agencies and compensation is given to those children found illegally working within the assembly lines. The same cannot be said of other multinational companies that use Chinese labour.
Ultimately, the social landscape of China itself will decide the fate of its workers. The fact that a significant proportion of Pegatron employees attempted to leave within two weeks is a testament to their own standards. Chinese workers generally don’t accept this kind of treatment. But there will always be vulnerable people and a market for cheap labour. Until there is a functioning framework of accountability within China, organisations (both domestic and international) will take advantage of individuals.
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