FLA’s final report on Apple and Foxconn obscures poor working conditions in China

Keeping an eye on Apple - GoodElectronics and makeITfair joint statement

Dec 23, 2013
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Fair Labor Association (FLA) has completed its verification at Apple supplier Foxconn. In the third and final “Foxconn Verification Status Report” released on 12 December 2013, FLA claims that 98.9 per cent of the corrective actions proposed by FLA have been successfully implemented. At first sight, it thus seems that Apple and Foxconn managed to keep their promise about better working conditions made in January 2012 when Apple joined FLA. In fact, some improvements concerning safety and health issues and a slight reduction of working hours have been made. However, the FLA report omits some crucial aspects. GoodElectronics and makeITfair summarise their concerns in a joint statement.

Fair Labor Association (FLA) has completed its verification at Apple supplier Foxconn. In the third and final “Foxconn Verification Status Report” released on 12 December 2013, FLA claims that 98.9 per cent of the corrective actions proposed by  FLA have been successfully implemented. At first sight, it thus seems that Apple and Foxconn managed to keep their promise about better working conditions made in January 2012 when Apple joined FLA. In fact, some improvements concerning safety and health issues and a slight reduction of working hours have been made. However, the FLA report omits some crucial aspects. GoodElectronics and makeITfair summarise their concerns in a joint statement.

In the past years, the GoodElectronics Network and makeITfair have repeatedly called on Apple to improve working conditions in China. Main concerns are that workers assembling Apple products in China do not earn a living wage, and that the workers’ right to freedom of association is effectively non-existent. Other issues put forward by GoodElectronics and makeITfair include Apple’s irresponsible purchasing practises and the lack of meaningful stakeholder dialogue. These concerns formed the core of the 2011 campaign “Time to bite into a fair Apple”. Following up on this campaign, GoodElectronics and makeITfair vowed to be “keeping an eye on Apple”. Since, GoodElectronics and makeITfair have issued a number of public statements about the continuously worrisome situation at Apple’s suppliers.

Last month, German NGO Germanwatch published an overview report summing up NGO reports about working conditions at Apple supplier factories in China. It concluded once more that promises made by Apple to change working conditions were not met. The final FLA report was released shortly after the death of a 15-year old Pegatron worker assembling the iPhone 5c was made public by China Labor Watch. The boy died of pneumonia after having worked an average of 12 hours a day in the Pegatron factory. In addition, the workers in the factory could only switch between night and day shifts once every three months. Other recent studies by CLW and SACOM also showed that working conditions at electronics supplier factories in China that produce components for Apple products such as cover glasses, or that assemble Apple end-products are still poor.

 

Six areas where Apple and Foxconn failed to fulfil their promises:

  • Working hours: In terms of working hours Apple and Foxconn agreed to be in full compliance with Chinese labour law by July 2013. The final FLA report on the contrary mentions that in the Longhua factory (Shenzhen) still 67 per cent of workers worked more than the legal limit of 36 hours overtime. In the FLA’s first investigation report (March 2012) this was true for 77.1 per cent of the workers at this factory. In Guanlan (Shenzhen) according to the new FLA report 56 per cent of the workforce worked more than the legal limit compared to 80 per cent when FLA first investigated the factory. However, for seven weeks during the investigation period from March till October 2013, overtime in this factory amounted to more than 60 extra hours per month, which is even above Apple’s own code of conduct. In the Chengdu factory today only 5 per cent of the workers on average exceed the legal limit. But between July and October the numbers still sharply rose to around 80 per cent. Consequently, the high-production periods seem to pose a major problem. FLA’s first investigations stated that about half of the workforce at Chengdu surpassed the legal limits of overtime hours.
  • Wages: Wage increases were promised in order to compensate for the reduction of working hours. The new FLA report, like the last two follow-up reports, does not mention this pressing issue at all.
  • Studies on living wage: The FLA promised to conduct “living-wage” studies in Shenzhen and Chengdu to determine the costs of living in both cities. This project was never mentioned in any FLA follow-up report.
  • Workers’ representation: Establishing a “genuine voice for workers” was another promise made by Apple and Foxconn. Even though the corrective actions included some measures in the field of workers’ representation, in its report the FLA states that no new union elections have taken place this year.
  • Unpaid overtime work: In addition to the corrective actions being agreed upon, in early 2012 the FLA had secured agreement from Foxconn and Apple to retroactively pay any worker due unpaid overtime work. The FLA made no comment about this issue in the last two follow-up reports or in the newest report.
  • Beyond Foxconn: Apple also assured that similar inspections to those at Foxconn would be conducted at Quanta and Pegatron facilities which would have then covered the factories where more than 90 per cent of Apple products are assembled. However, the FLA never published any report about those facilities and the verifications conducted were hence limited to three Foxconn factories only (Longhua, Guanlan and Chengdu).

From now on Apple will only report to FLA on an annual basis. GoodElectronics and makeITfair doubt that without the obligation of having to report regularly, it will be difficult to keep track on progress on the promised topics, or the lack thereof.

Another major concern of GoodElectronics and makeITfair is the lack of proper stakeholder dialogue between FLA, Foxconn and Apple on the one hand, and Chinese and international labour groups on the other hand. For years now, the FLA Board does not have any trade unions members or NGOs with critical expertise in the electronics sector. Despite its expanded staff, FLA has failed to set up sustainable channels of communication with Chinese and international labour groups.

The same holds true for Apple. The company stills seems to shy away from meaningful dialogue and structural engagement with civil society stakeholders over sensitive issues such as the relation between hours of work, living wages, and business practices, including pricing, lead times and marketing techniques. As an affiliate of FLA, Apple is required to align its planning and purchasing practices with its commitment to workplace standards, as stipulated in the FLA Principles of fair labor and responsible sourcing. But, also within the context of the applauded electronics programme of the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative, it has not been possible to discuss these interrelated topics.

Foxconn, as well as other Apple suppliers, is an extremely difficult nut to crack. As yet a decent conversation between Foxconn’s higher management and labour groups still has to take place.

GoodElectronics and makeITfair once again call upon Apple to change purchasing practises and to put pressure on its Chinese supplier factories to establish genuine workers’ representation. FLA should facilitate processes in order for workers to enjoy a living wage and healthy and safe working conditions. Another important step would be for Apple to engage in a comprehensive stakeholder dialogue.

GoodElectronics and makeITfair also see a role for EICC, the industry body that Apple, Foxconn, Pegatron and Quanta are members of. EICC should watch over the implementation of its code of conduct and take serious steps in cases when its members are consistently failing to implement the EICC code.

 

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