Grueling workloads, humiliating punishments and battery-farm living conditions remain routine for workers assembling Apple’s electronics, according to one of the most detailed reports yet on life inside China’s Foxconn (富士康) factories.
The researchers claim that intimidation, exhaustion and labor rights violations “remain the norm” for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese iPhone workers, despite Apple redoubling its efforts to improve conditions.
Interviews with 170 workers and supervisors at Foxconn factories in the cities of Shenzhen and Zhengzhou from March to last month found that punishments remain a key management tool.
The report, by Hong Kong workers’ rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), says workers have been told to clean toilets, sweep lawns and write confession letters, which are then pinned up on noticeboards or read out to colleagues.
Living conditions in Foxconn campus dormitories remain cramped, with 20 or 30 workers sharing three-bedroom apartments, sleeping eight to a room in bunk beds.
They are forbidden from using power-hungry electrical items such as kettles or laptops on pain of confiscation, says SACOM, which published the study to coincide with Foxconn’s annual general meeting in Hong Kong yesterday.
Where most assembly staff were previously forced to stand, stools have now been introduced for some workers. However, they are under instructions to sit on only a third of the seat, so that they remain “nimble” enough to do the work.
There were 728 industrial injuries at Foxconn factories in Shenzhen in the year to last month, according to the Shenzhen regional public register. This is a small portion of a workforce estimated at 500,000, but SACOM believes injuries are under-reported.
“The management simply negotiate with the injured workers for a settlement. According to respondents, cases of industrial injuries have an impact on the bonus received by middle management. Therefore, the middle management are reluctant to report all the cases,” SACOM says.
Foxconn did not respond to requests for comment.
Apple says it has made improving conditions at its factories a priority. An independent audit by the Fair Labor Association at the end of March insisted on a ceiling of 60 hours a month for overtime. Foxconn has gone a step further by promising a ceiling of 36 hours by next summer.
Interviewed this week, Apple chief executive Tim Cook said the company was addressing the long-hours culture.
“We want everyone to know what we are doing, and we hope that people copy. We’ve put a ton of effort into taking overtime down,” Cook said.
Apple said in April that its suppliers achieved 95 percent compliance with the 60-hour working week specified in its code, up from 91 percent for March. However, SACOM’s findings fly in the face of Apple’s figures. Foxconn employees interviewed in April were still working up to 80 hours of overtime a month at Longhua.
About 10 percent of interviewees were supervisors or assistant supervisors. They claimed their administrative work was unpaid and that shifts were usually followed by unpaid work meetings, at which frontline managers would be scolded by their superiors, causing them to “unconsciously vent their anger on the production workers.”
The mistreatment is not confined to Apple workers, but affects those making products for other Western companies, including Amazon, Hewlett Packard, Dell and Nokia, SACOM said.