Global Electronics Factories In Spotlight
Recently, a model of genuine worker participation has surprisingly emerged in China.
- By Garrett Brown
- Aug 04, 2010
Brand-name and contract electronics manufacturers have been rocked this year by a series of ongoing scandals about working conditions in the Asian plants that work day and night to produce the vast majority of the world’s consumer electronics. The worker suicides and cancer cases have called into question the effectiveness of electronics brand's elaborate "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) programs, their contradictory business model, and the near-zero participation by workers in factory health and safety programs.
In the first five months of 2010 at Foxconn Technology Group's giant 300,000-worker electronics assembly plant in Longhua, China, 16 workers had attempted suicide by jumping off the top of tall dormitory buildings, resulting in 12 deaths and four crippling injuries, and at least 20 other workers were restrained before committing suicide. All workers were between 18 and 24 and were migrants from rural areas of western China. By the end of May 2010, at least 49 young semiconductor workers had contracted cancer -– including 32 brain, leukemia, and lymphoma cancers -– while working at Samsung’s huge electronics plants throughout Korea. Nineteen deaths have occurred, mostly to workers in their 20s. Samsung denied the cancers were work-related, but a Korean magazine reprinted an internal Samsung handbook outlining the use of at least six carcinogens at its plants, including arsine, benzene, and trichloroethylene.
In March 2010, China's State Administration for Workplace Safety (SAWS) confirmed that 47 workers at the United Win cell phone plant in Suzhou, China, had been hospitalized in the last year for n-hexane poisonings resulting in peripheral neuropathies, severe muscle atrophy and long-term disabilities. United Win workers had uncontrolled exposures while using the solvent to clean touch screens of computers and phones.
Both the Foxconn and United Win plants are major contractor facilities for Apple.
Global Supply Chain “Standard Features”
The three plants –- one in southern China, one in coastal eastern China, and one in Korea -– share common features which have come to characterize contract factories throughout the electronics industry, and in global supply chains for other consumer products such as garments, footwear, athletic equipment, and toys.
The "standard features" of these global supply chains have produced high levels of workplace stress, significant occupational illnesses, and traumatic injuries. Among these characteristics are:
- low pay (base pay in China is under $140 a month for the first 160 hours of work), which means employees work long hours of overtime to increase their take-home pay;
- long hours of work (70-80 hours during a six- or seven-day work week), which means intense chemical and noise exposures extending well beyond the base 40-hour week;
- high production quotas and low piecework pay rates, which lead to intense work periods, ergonomic issues, and additional hours of (often unpaid) work;
- harsh management regimes, quasi-military in Foxconn's case, with strictly enforced "factory rules" governing all aspects of workers' lives, with pay deductions (fines) for infractions, as decided by line supervisors and managers.
At Foxconn, electronics workers have 12-hour shifts (with two one-hour breaks), frequently six days a week. Talking at work is forbidden (with fines meted out to violators), and recent counseling sessions on site have revealed that some workers are so exhausted and isolated by work that they do not even know the names of their roommates in their 10-person dorm rooms.
"We are extremely tired, with tremendous pressure," one assembly worker told investigators from China Labor Watch. "We finish one step every seven seconds, which requires us to concentrate and keep working and working. We work even faster that the machines. Every shift we finish 4,000 Dell computers, all the while standing up. We can accomplish these assignments through collective effort, but many of us feel worn out."
"I know why all those people jumped," 23-year-old Lin Fengxiang told a national Chinese newspaper. "In here, nobody gives a damn about you." Trainee Li Cheng, paid a reduced wage during the months-long "trainee" period, told the same reporter, "This is their territory. We can only try to survive."
A Beijing sociology professor wrote in the Southern Metropolitan Daily in Guangzhou on May 17, "People cannot help but ask, what kind of world has Foxconn created? . . . In the eyes of Foxconn's managers, the only real thing there is in young people's lives is the sweat and blood needed for the production line. Their feelings, their personal life, and their social networks are systematically neglected, compressed and stripped away. . . . Of course, this kind of factory is a sweatshop."
Both Foxconn and Apple have strenuously denied the worker suicides are a reflection of sweatshop working conditions. But Apple's own CSR program has documented ongoing problems. The last international scandal at Foxconn erupted in 2006 after a local newspaper exposé of harsh working conditions.
Apple's 'Code of Conduct'
Apple conducted an audit then and found that its "code of conduct" -– setting a limit of 60 hours of work per week and no more than six consecutive days of work -– was violated 34 percent of the time for working hours and 25 percent of the time for six-day work weeks at Foxconn. Numerous reports by non-governmental organizations since 2006 have documented worsening conditions as Apple's demand for iPhone and iPad production has skyrocketed in the past four years. Foxconn facilities reportedly produce 70 percent of Apple products.
It should be noted that Apple's code allowing 20 hours a week of overtime -– the same as the industry's Electronics Industry Citizen Coalition code -– explicitly violates China's national law prohibiting overtime greater than nine hours per week or 36 hours per month. Work weeks of 70 to 80 hours also renders meaningless reported "CSR compliance" with chemical and noise exposure limits because these limits assume exposures lasting only 40 hours per week.
Apple recently issued a "Supplier Responsibility: 2010 Progress Report" that indicated of the 102 plants it audited in eight countries, 69 percent had inadequate worker training on OHS; 48 percent of the plants used personal protective equipment incorrectly or were without it altogether and 24 percent of plants had never conducted an ergonomics evaluation of the highly repetitive assembly work.
The 2010 CSR report also indicated that in Apple's supply chain factories, 58 percent of plants worked more than 60 hours per week at least half the time and 64 percent worked seven days a week at least than half of the time. Little progress has been made since 2006.
At Apple's contractor United Win plant in Suzhou, n-hexane has now been replaced by isopropanol and propanone. But United Win workers had to conduct two spontaneous strikes, one in July 2009 and the second in January 2010, before the substitution was made. Workers at United Win actually work longer hours than at Foxconn and, according to Chinese news media, workers at this Apple supplier have not received the legally required safety trainings, protective equipment, and medical checks.
Samsung is the world's number one producer of flat screen televisions, the number two producer of mobile phones, and had 2009 sales revenues of $120.4 billion. The company is, by itself, responsible for 20 percent of all Korean exports, and it has as much political power as economic impact in the country.
The growing controversy about cancer clusters among young workers at Samsung's fabs, assembly and research facilities, has forced it to address the concerns with an unprecedented public relations effort. The company has admitted that 22 workers had contracted cancer, with 10 deaths, during the past 13 years. On March 31, 23-year-old Park Ji-yeon died of leukemia, which had first been diagnosed when she was 21 and working at Samsung.
Samsung promised to form an "independent commission" of occupational health experts to evaluate worker exposure to and adverse health effects from radiation, benzene, and other carcinogens at its plants. The company has categorically denied that its workers were exposed to harmful chemicals.
Hankyoreh 21, the Korean magazine reporting on Samsung's internal handbook on carcinogens and solvents, also quoted two engineers at the Giheung semiconductor plant. "Because employees are forced to compete for productivity, there was no choice but to disable the interlock safety device, which is unnecessary and slows down the work rate. They disabled dozens of interlocks on average each day, exempting only those absolutely fatal to safety," said engineer Kim.
The second engineer, a 10-year Samsung veteran, told the Korean newsweekly, "When I was working there, there were quite a number of organic solvent and gas leak incidents."
Protecting Supply Chain Workers
How best to protect workers health and safety in global supply chains is still an unanswered question in the electronics industry and other industrial sectors.
The top-down, management systems-focused CSR programs of international brands and their contract manufacturers have failed to bring significant, sustained improvements to the actual factory floor. No matter what the codes of conduct call for, monitoring of them is "gamed" by both contractor factory managers and "independent, third-party" auditors, and actual conditions have only marginally improved over the last decade.
The promises of CSR programs -– now a $40 billion-a-year business globally -– have been fatally undermined by the "iron triangle" of lowest possible per-unit price, highest possible quality, and fastest possible delivery times. Contractor factories, not provided with financial support for CSR policies required by the brands, instead face slashed profit margins and additional costs that can be made up only by further squeezing their own labor force.
Moreover, shop-floor workers in these giant Asian factories have been completely left on the sidelines in plant OHS programs when they could be playing critical roles in conducting inspections and accident investigations, verifying hazard corrections, and providing peer training to co-workers. No effective OHS program can built without the active participation of informed and empowered workers in China, or Korea, or anywhere else.
Recently, a model of genuine worker participation has surprisingly emerged in China. In May, 1,900 workers at a Honda auto plant in Foshan, China conducted a united, disciplined, completely unauthorized strike against the Japanese automaker. The workers, 80 percent of whom are young technical school "interns," won a 35 percent increase in wages and benefits in negotiations conducted by 16 representatives directly elected by the workers themselves.
Honda attempted to get the workers to sign an agreement to never strike again, but the London Financial Times reported one worker wrote over the form in large characters in red ink, "If you are Chinese, you will definitely not sign –- one for all and all for one."
That motto –- one for all and all for one -– would be a good one for factory safety committees throughout global supply chains, chains that stretch from giant plants and small workshops in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to retail consumers shopping in malls and boutiques in Europe and the United States.