One day last summer, Pu Xiaolan was halfway through a shift inspecting iPad cases when she received a beige wooden chair with white stripes and a high, sturdy back.
At first, Pu wondered if someone had made a mistake, but when her bosses walked by, they nodded curtly. So Pu gently sat down and leaned back. Her body relaxed.
The rumors were true.
When Pu was hired at the Foxconn Technology Group (富士康科技集團) plant in Chengdu, China, a year earlier, she received a short, green plastic stool that left her unsupported back so sore that she could barely sleep at night. Eventually, she was promoted to a wooden chair, but the backrest was too small to lean against. The managers of the 164,000-employee factory must believe that comfort encouraged sloth, she thought.
However, in March, unbeknown to Pu, a critical meeting had occurred between Foxconn’s top executives and a high-ranking Apple Inc official. The companies had committed themselves to a series of wide-ranging reforms. Foxconn, China’s largest private employer, pledged to sharply curtail workers’ hours and significantly increase wages — reforms that, if fully carried out next year as planned, could create a ripple effect that benefits tens of millions of workers across the electronics industry, employment experts say.
The changes also extend to California, where Apple is based. Apple, the electronics industry’s behemoth, in the past year has tripled its corporate social responsibility staff, has re-evaluated how it works with manufacturers, asked competitors to help curb excessive overtime in China and reached out to advocacy groups it once rebuffed.
Executives at companies like Hewlett-Packard and Intel say those shifts have convinced many electronics companies that they must also overhaul how they interact with foreign plants and workers — often at a cost to their bottom lines, though probably not so much as to affect consumer prices, analysts say.
Even with these reforms, chronic problems remain at overseas factories. Many employees still work illegal overtime and some employees’ safety remains at risk, according to interviews and reports published by advocacy organizations.
AN INSPECTOR’S PUSH
“This is a disgrace,” Foxconn founder and chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘) shouted at a meeting in March.
Gou, seen by activists as a longtime obstacle to improving conditions inside his factories, was meeting with his top deputies in Shenzhen, China. Last year, the New York Times had begun sending Apple and Foxconn extensive questions about working conditions in factories manufacturing Apple products. The resulting articles in late January detailed problems ranging from excessive overtime and underage workers to sometimes deadly hazards. An explosion in Pu’s Foxconn plant killed four workers.
In January, Apple publicly released the names of many of its suppliers for the first time. Additionally, the company made the unusual move of joining the Fair Labor Association, one of the largest workplace monitoring groups. Auditors from that association were soon inspecting Apple’s partners in China, starting with Foxconn.
Now, Gou was learning the results of those examinations. Foxconn was still failing to stop illegal overtime, the association’s lead inspector, Auret van Heerden, told Gou and his lieutenants, according to multiple people with knowledge of the meeting. The company was failing to keep student interns off night shifts. Foxconn had not put sufficient safety policies into practice and had exposed potentially hundreds of thousands of workers to at least 43 violations of Chinese laws and regulations.