The Madeleine Brand Show for March 30, 2012

Working conditions improve for Chinese workers at Foxconn

CeBIT Technology Trade Fair

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Apple has been criticized for working conditions within Foxconn, a Chinese company that assembles a majority of its products. Apple is now insisting on improvements at the factories.

Amidst a swirl of negative press about working conditions in the factories of Apple's largest Chinese contractor, Foxconn, the Taiwan-based company launched an independent audit to review how workers were being treated.

The audit was conducted by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which found that many workers were putting in more than 60 hours a week, a violation of Chinese law. The FLA also interviewed workers who worked 11 days in a row with no time off, workers who felt that their health and safety were at risk or were saying that they weren’t being paid enough to meet their minimum needs.

According to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, the FLA surveyed over 35,000 employees with accuracy.

“They found cheat sheets – the employees had been given these lists of answers to be given to certain questions. But because the FLA’s questions are so probing, the cheat sheets fell apart when they were questioning them,” he said.

As a result of the audit, Foxconn has promised to alter working conditions by reducing overtime hours and increasing hourly wages. Duhigg said an increase in wages so employees working fewer hours will not be financially penalized is important.

“Workers themselves want to break the law and work more hours, because their wages are so low that it’s the overtime that really gives them the money that they need,” he explained.

Apple manufacturers won’t be the only ones seeing these improvements. “Foxconn manufactures 40% of the electronics around the world, and this will be company-wide. So the products that come from dell or Microsoft or HP – those workers will also benefit from this,” Duhigg added.

Duhigg said Foxconn will spend hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars to support these changes, and most likely pass on additional costs to the companies they manufacture for. Still, he said consumers may not have to worry about companies charging more for their electronics.

“One thing we have to remember [about] the gadgets that we have in our life is that the cost of labor is actually one of the smallest inputs to making that. The cost of hiring an additional Chinese worker to put it together is nothing compared to the cost of the microchips inside, or even buying the glass for the screen,” he said.

According to Duhigg, what’s significant is that the work reform marks a turning point in China. “Apple, within the nation and within the world’s psyche, holds this kind of vaunted position, in terms of a leader in innovation and a leader in business methods. The company now has essentially, over this Foxconn partner, said that it will change significantly how work is done in China,” he concluded.

Guest:

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for The New York Times.


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