Tian Yu worked more than 12 hours a day, six days a week. She had to skip meals to do overtime. Then she threw herself from a fourth-floor window
At around 8am on 17 March 2010, Tian Yu threw herself from the fourth floor of her factory dormitory in Shenzhen, southern China. For the past month, the teenager had worked on an assembly line churning out parts for Apple iPhones and iPads. At Foxconn’s Longhua facility, that is what the 400,000 employees do: produce the smartphones and tablets that are sold by Samsung or Sony or Dell and end up in British and American homes.
But most famously of all, China’s biggest factory makes gadgets for Apple. Without its No 1 supplier, the Cupertino giant’s current riches would be unimaginable: in 2010, Longhua employees made 137,000 iPhones a day, or around 90 a minute.
That same year, 18 workers – none older than 25 – attempted suicide at Foxconn facilities. Fourteen died. Tian Yu was one of the lucky ones: emerging from a 12-day coma, she was left with fractures to her spine and hips and paralysed from the waist down. She was 17.
When news broke of the suicide spree, reporters battled to piece together what was wrong in Apple’s supply chain. Photos were printed of safety nets strung by the company under dorm windows; interviews with workers revealed just how bad conditions were. Some quibbled over how unusual the Foxconn deaths were, arguing that they were in line with China’s high rate of self-killing. However conscience-soothing that claim was in both Shenzhen and California, it overlooked how those who take their own lives are often elderly or women in villages, rather than youngsters who have just moved to cities to seek their fortunes.
For the three years since, that’s the spot where the debate has been paused. In all the talk of corporate social responsibility and activists’ counter-claims that the producers of iPads and iPhones are still sweating in “labour camp” conditions, you hardly ever hear those who actually work at Foxconn speak at length and in their own terms. People such as Tian Yu.
Yu was interviewed over three years by Jenny Chan and Sacom, a Hong Kong-based group of rights campaigners. From her hospital recuperation in Shenzhen to her return to her family’s village, Chan and her colleagues kept in touch throughout and have published the interviews in the latest issue of an academic journal called New Technology, Work and Employment. The result is a rare and revealing insight into how big electronics companies now rely on what is effectively a human battery-farming system: employing young, poor migrants from the Chinese countryside, cramming them into vast workhouses and crowded dorms, then spitting out the ones who struggle to keep up.
Yu fits the profile to a T. In February 2010, she left her village in central China in order to earn money to support an impoverished family. As a leaving gift, her father scraped together about ¥500 (just over £50) and a secondhand mobile so she could call home. After a journey of nearly 700 miles, she was taken on at Foxconn. The employee handbook urged: “Hurry towards your finest dreams, pursue a magnificent life.”
But Yu doesn’t remember her daily routine as particularly magnificent. Managers would begin shifts by asking workers: “How are you?” Staff were forced to reply: “Good! Very good! Very, very good!” After that, silence was enforced.
She worked more than 12 hours each day, six days a week. She was compelled to attend early work meetings for no pay, and to skip meals to do overtime. Toilet breaks were restricted; mistakes earned you a shouting-at. And yet there was no training.
In her first month, Yu had to work two seven-day weeks back to back. Foreign reporters who visit Longhua campus are shown its Olympic-sized swimming pools and shops, but she was too exhausted to do anything but sleep. She was swapped between day and night shifts and kept in an eight-person dormitory where she barely knew the names of her fellow sleepers.
Stranded in a city far from her family, unable to make friends or even get a decent night’s sleep, Yu finally broke when bosses didn’t pay her for the month’s labour because of some administrative foul-up. In desperation, she hurled herself out of a window. She was owed £140 in basic pay and overtime, or around a quarter of a new iPhone 5.
Yu’s experience flies in the face of Foxconn’s own codes, let alone Apple’s. Yet it is surely the inevitable fallout of a system in which Foxconn makes a wafer-thin margin on the goods it produces for Apple, and so is forced to squeeze workers ever harder.
The suicide spate prompted Apple CEO Tim Cook to call on Foxconn to improve working conditions. But there is no record of him providing any money to do so, or even relaxing the draconian contractual conditions imposed on Foxconn. Asked about it yesterday, Apple’s press office said it did not discuss such matters and directed me to the company’s latest Supplier Responsibility report. A glossy thing, it opens with “what we do to empower workers” and describes how staff can study for degrees.
After her suicide attempt, Yu received a one-off “humanitarian payment” of ¥180,000 (£18,000) to help her go home. According to her father: “It was as if they were buying and selling a thing.” Last year, Tim Cook received wages of $4m – it was a big drop on the package he took in 2011.
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Three Foxconn workers have committed suicide at a factory in China in the past three weeks, a labour rights group said on Saturday.
All three jumped to their deaths at a plant in the central city of Zhengzhou run by the Taiwanese electronics giant.
A 30-year-old married man killed himself on Tuesday following the similar deaths of a 23-year-old woman on April 27 and a 24-year-old man three days earlier, media reports said.
“The reasons for these building jumpings are unclear,” the New York-based China Labor Watch rights group said in a statement.
Foxconn, which assembles products for Apple, Sony and Nokia, has come under the spotlight after suicides and labour unrest at its Chinese plants since 2010.
In 2010, at least 13 Foxconn employees in China died in apparent suicides, which activists blamed on tough working conditions, prompting calls for better treatment of staff.
Although Foxconn denied the accusations, it raised wages by nearly 70 percent at its China plants in 2010.
It has also taken steps such as improving working conditions and enforcing age restrictions to address concerns raised by an independent audit of conditions mandated by Apple.
Foxconn is the world’s largest maker of computer components and employs up to 1.1 million workers in China.
Taiwan tech giant Hon Hai, parent company of FoxConn, will pay royalties to Microsoft to ward off a lawsuit over its production of devices using rival Google’s Android and Chrome platforms.
A Microsoft statement late on Tuesday did not reveal the amounts the US company will be paid however.
The licensing agreement protects Hon Hai from claims that the cell phones and televisions it produces and which use Android and Chrome infringe on Microsoft’s patented technology.
The Taiwanese company is the world’s largest contract electronics maker and assembles products for Apple, Sony and Nokia, among others, in huge plants in China where it employs more than one million workers.
Students told to man production lines at Foxconn if they want to graduate, says Hong Kong-based nonprofit.
Apple’s factories in China are employing tens of thousands of students, some of them on forced internships, according to campaigners lobbying for better labour conditions at Foxconn plants, which assemble iPhones. Some students could be as young as 16.
The Foxconn chairman, Terry Gou, head of China’s largest private-sector employer – with 1.2 million workers – promised on Sunday to reduce hours and improve pay after an independent audit found multiple labour law violations at his factories.
But campaigners have accused Apple, Foxconn and the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a charitable organisation that carried out the audit published on Friday, of ignoring the issue of forced internships, where students are told they will not graduate unless they spend months working on production lines during holidays.
In December, 1,500 students were sent by just one vocational college in Henan, China’s most populous province, for internships at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant, which Apple chief executive, Tim Cook, visited last week. The Yancheng Evening News, which exposed the practice, interviewed students who said they were going against their will and that their schools were acting as “labour agencies”.
“The gross violation of forced internship was not addressed at all,” said Debby Cheng, project officer of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom), of the Foxconn audit. “They tried to water down the problem.”
Students of nursing, languages, music and art are being corralled into internships of between three and six months, during which 10-hour days and seven-day weeks are not unusual, according to Sacom and a number of Chinese media reports, which claim colleges and universities are acting as employment agencies, sending their pupils to Foxconn not for relevant training, but to bolster the workforce during summer and winter holiday periods.
In the summer of 2010, when Foxconn was in crisis after several suicides among the workforce at its largest plant in Shenzhen, 100,000 vocational school students – mostly in their late teens – were sent from Henan for three months.
China Daily reported that some students at a vocational school in Henan’s capital, Zhengzhou, were not told of the work until nine days before they were due to leave home. Teachers told students they must leave “as ordered by the provincial government” and that all those who refused would have to drop out of school.
The FLA found that at a peak period in August 2001, 5.7% of the labour force – some 68,000 workers – at Foxconn Group were interns. Its assessors found “interns worked both overtime and night shifts, violations of regulations governing internships”.
The FLA, which described the hiring of interns as “the source of much controversy” and of “major concern to external stakeholders” in its Apple audit, has agreed measures to improve the treatment of students with Foxconn and Apple.
These include making sure the job relates to the intern’s field of study, procedures allowing interns to resign so that they do not feel that they are working against their will, and publishing evaluations of internships, including an annual report.
The FLA found Foxconn hired an average of 27,000 interns a month, for an average tenure of three and a half months. It said the interns’ working day should not exceed eight hours for five days a week, and they should never work seven days in a row.
But Sacom and the Guardian’s own inquiries have confirmed that 10-hour days and six-day weeks are standard. The FLA said conditions for students were difficult to regulate because under Chinese law they were not defined as employees and no employment relationship exists between the factory and interns.
This meant some of Foxconn’s most vulnerable workers were the least protected, with the FLA concluding “their employment status remains vague and represents a major risk”.
“These students should be studying, but rather they now work 10 hours a day, six to seven days a week, taking on night shifts for months at a time, equivalent to adult workers,” said Cheng. She criticised the audit for not highlighting the forced labour issue. “They tried to water down the problem. They used the word ‘controversial’ without mentioning that these students were forced to work at Foxconn.”
Sacom was set up by Hong Kong academics to highlight working conditions at plants making toys for Disney when Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005. It has now expanded to focus on the electronics sector. In March, it issued a public letter to Cook calling on Apple to stop using student workers. It said: “Students who major in subjects such as pharmacy, tourism and language end up working as interns at Foxconn. Some students even complain that if they refuse the ‘internship’ at Foxconn, they will be forced to drop out of school. This is a form of involuntary labour, which is approved by Apple in producing its products.”
On Sunday, Gou said at a business forum in Hainan province that he would address Foxconn’s long-hours culture. “We are saying now in the company, ‘You work fewer hours, but get more pay.’”
Foxconn, Apple and the FLA have not responded to requests for comment.
Workers at Foxconn, the massive factory complex in China that supplies U.S. tech giant Apple and dozens of other titans of electronic industry, will soon see reduced hours, higher wages and improved working conditions according to a company statement in response to a devastating new report by the Fair Labor Association (FLA).
Apple joined the FLA in January as criticism against Foxconn began to reach thunderous levels. The factory, which hires over 1.2 million Chinese workers, has been plagued by horror stories of awful working conditions, long hours, unsafe conditions and abusive managers. In once instance last year, about 300 people threatened to jump to their deaths — a galling protest which they hoped would force the factory’s management into giving them more pay.
When they joined the FLA, Apple earned the distinction of becoming the first tech company to do so. The Washington, D.C.-based group has for most of its short life been dedicated to stamping out sweat shop labor at facilities utilized by companies like Nike, Barnes & Noble, Liz Claiborne, Puma and American Eagle Outfitters.
When Apple was confronted by petitions from its most enthusiastic users earlier this year demanding that the company do something to improve their workers’ conditions, Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted that they care about Chinese laborers — so he pulled the trigger on the company’s FLA membership and asked for an official audit of China’s largest employer.
That audit has now been completed. Following a survey of more than 35,000 Foxconn workers, the FLA warned that Foxconn abuses its labor force in a number of ways. Their factories reportedly subject employees to work weeks that often exceed 76 hours — the maximum allowed by Chinese law — and they often spend seven days on the job without much in the way of breaks. The audit also uncovered numerous health and safety violations, cautioning that Foxconn must correct the situation.
Foxconn said Thursday that it would comply and correct the situation over the next 16 months. They did not specify how much wages would increase, or how much hours would decrease, but it’s also likely the company’s changing arrangements with workers also has a lot to do with their plans to implement an increasing level of automation and cut down on their human workforce.
Whether conditions really will improve for Foxconn workers still remains to be seen, but Thursday’s announcement can still only be seen as a victory for U.S. labor activists, many of whom are still learning how they can utilize the Internet to influence corporations and create positive change in communities around the world.
Photo: Lev Radin, Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.
WASHINGTON — Workplace abuses were uncovered in an audit that equated to “a full body scan” of three Chinese factories pumping out coveted Apple gadgets, independent investigators reported on Thursday.
Employees at each of the factories had exceeded a work-week limit of 76 hours set by Chinese law and, in some cases, worked more than seven days straight without a required 24-hour break, according to the Fair Labor Association.
“The Fair Labor Association gave Apple’s largest supplier the equivalent of a full-body scan through 3,000 staff hours investigating three of its factories and surveying more than 35,000 workers,” said FLA president Auret van Heerden.
“Apple and its supplier Foxconn have agreed to our prescriptions, and we will verify progress and report publicly.”
Along with excessive overtime and not always compensating workers properly for extra hours that were put in, the nearly month-long investigation uncovered health and safety risks and “crucial communication gaps.”
Foxconn has pledged to bring factory conditions into full compliance with Chinese law and FLA standards regarding working hours by July of next year, according to the report.
“If implemented, these commitments will significantly improve the lives of more than 1.2 million Foxconn employees and set a new standard for Chinese factories,” van Heerden said.
The report was released as Apple chief Tim Cook paid a visit to China, where state media said the man tipped to be country’s next leader had told him foreign firms should do more to protect workers.
International labor watchdog groups have said workers in Chinese plants run by major Apple supplier Foxconn of Taiwan are poorly treated, and have blamed a string of apparent suicides on the conditions.
Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is likely to be China’s next premier, met Tim Cook while the new Apple chief executive was visiting Beijing on Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Li told Cook multinational companies should “pay more attention to caring for workers,” the report said.
Cook on Wednesday visited a Foxconn plant employing 120,000 people in China’s central city of Zhengzhou, where he viewed the production line, Apple said.
California-based Apple is wildly popular in China, where its products such as the iPhone and iPad are coveted by wealthy consumers.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese company manufacturing products for prominent tech companies including Apple, is responding to major criticism for the harsh treatment of its employees by saying they will raise their salaries.
According to The New York Times, Foxconn announced Saturday it would increase their workers pay from 16 to 25 percent, or about $400 a month, and reduce overtime hours.
Apple has faced enormous pressure for news surfacing on Foxconn’s behavior towards its employees for violating Chinese labor laws. Foxconn, whose Chinese factory produces the iPhone, also encountered heavy public backlash for a number of suicides occurring at the same place.
The manufacturing company’s chief Terry Goru recently apologized for comparing workers to animals.
Technology giant Apple, Inc. said Monday it was asking the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to investigate working conditions at Chinese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, essentially caving to the demands of protesters who delivered over 250,000 petition signatures to the company last week.
Foxconn, which hires over 1 million Chinese workers, has been plagued over the years by reports of suicides, and in one instance last year, a group of about 300 people threatened to jump to their deaths if they weren’t given better pay and working conditions.
Foxconn, which makes devices for companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Intel and others, has said it plans to replace most of its workers with robots in the coming years. Meanwhile, the company keeps its human workers in small bunks on site, works them in 12-24 hour shifts, provides little food or medical assistance, and oversees their daily duties with military-like precision using advance surveillance techniques.
Apple, for its part, joined the FLA in January as criticism against Foxconn was mounting. They became the first tech company to partner with the Washington, D.C. group, which is dedicated to stamping out sweat shops throughout the world. Other FLA partners include Nike, Barnes & Noble, Liz Blaiborne, Inc., Puma AG and American Eagle Outfitters, Inc.
After last week’s petitions, the company decided it was time to pull the trigger on their FLA membership rights, so Apple asked that the group to begin fair labor inspections of Foxconn’s facilities.
“We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers,” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, explained in a media advisory. “The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.”
This is not the first time Apple has listened to its critics, either: after years of campaigning by environmental groups, Apple announced last year that it was initiating an e-waste recycling program that would accept any old Macs, PC, computer displays or mobile devices. They even offer to pick up the shipping tab, and if the company can turn a profit on any of the hardware turned in, customers receive gift cards for various amounts.