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Fences were raised on the roof of Foxconn's dormitories after a wave of suicides in 2010. Foto: Sigurd Jorde

Apple of Discord

Mobile phone companies have managed to make small masterpieces of technology and entertainment. But they have not succeeded in avoiding scandal and terrible working conditions. The Future in Our Hands has visited one of the cities where iPhone is produced: Shenzhen in China.
Mobile phone companies have managed to make small masterpieces of technology and entertainment. But they have not succeeded in avoiding scandal and terrible working conditions. The Future in Our Hands has visited one of the cities where iPhone is produced: Shenzhen in China.


This article has been translated to English. The original article can be found here, and was first published in Folkevett 1-2013.

“I love the company – the company loves me.”
Topic of speech and debate course for Foxconn’s employees.

It has a catchy name and accompanies you everywhere: at work, on trips or at parties. It contains all your colleagues and friends and collects pictures of your family. It wakes you up in the morning and may even join you in bed when you beg for 5 more minutes of sleep. Up until you destroy it or trade it in for a younger or better equipped model, being the faithless person you are. None of your other possessions participate to such an extent in your private life as the mobile phone. But where was the phone before you unpacked it and it became yours? Who produced it?    

A Chinese interpreter and I are walking the streets in a small, densely populated residential area in Shenzhen, right outside one of Foxconn’s gigantic factories in China. We are trying to chat with some of the workers, who, among other things, produce iPhone or iPad. The Longhua factory employs 24,000, so it really should not be difficult to find someone to talk with.

We wander back and forth in the light rain, underneath our umbrellas, and try to engage rather at random the Foxconn workers on their way to lunch. It’s difficult. Foxconn’s workers have been told not to speak to the media, and the interpreter is cautious and careful about whom we approach. In China you don’t talk freely. Nonetheless, I’m unsure whether my somewhat naïve queries will anger the Chinese security police – if they in fact care at all about what we are doing.

No Future in Foxconn
“Are you satisfied with your job?”

Taye is a 24-year-old worker who produces parts for iPhone and Macbook. We try an open and positive question, to see where it gets us.

“I want to change job. There’s no future in this.”

He has moved to Shenzhen from Anhui Province, where he was recruited to Foxconn at school. The salary is low compared to the expenses in the city, the work is boring, and he cares little for the supervisors. He hurries on in the rain.

“Are you proud of working for Foxconn?”
 
“No. I do this only for the money, to survive. I want to learn the trade and move on,” says the next worker we get hold of.

He job task is to check the telephone screens, a tiring and stressful job. Like most of the workers, he is young, 23 years old, and has recently moved to Shenzhen from Hunan Province. The job ad on the Internet looked interesting, but he is no longer so impressed with Foxconn. Lately they have reduced the amount of overtime, so the wage has become very low – a little more than 330 USD a month. Both Foxconn and Apple have promised to reduce the use of overtime, after revelations of excessive overtime at the Chinese factories.          

“He didn’t want to say too much, for reasons of his own security,” the interpreter says afterwards. “I promised that we are not carrying out an investigation.

Shenzhen was declared China’s first “special economic zone” in 1980 and was at that point a fishing village with a few thousand inhabitants on the border to British-governed Hong Kong. In three decades the population has increased to about 15 million (the estimates vary); most are young immigrants who work in factory jobs. Shenzhen was China’s first attempt at modern capitalism. Capitalism in its crudest form sprung up here, with little respect for laws and regulations, gross exploitation of work capacity and an explosive growth of the economy and work capacity. Today the situation is more stable, and the wages considerably higher than in the inland provinces.

From assembly lines to gaming halls
A steady stream of reports from China indicates that the workers who make the parts and assemble your mobile phone have a really terrible day at work. Every day, 6 days a week.

Long days and an awful lot of overtime, 13 work days in a row, monotonous work tasks, harassment by the bosses, great work pressure, short toilet breaks, ban on talking together and low wages. These are some of the complaints from the workers at the Foxconn factories in China, repeated in reports and newspaper articles the past 2 years. Foxconn is a Taiwanese electronics company with more than 1 million employees, most of them in China. Foxconn is best known for making iPhone and iPad but also produces for Acer, Amazon (Kindle), Cisco, Dell, HP, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nokia, Sony and Toshiba.

All of the six workers we talked with outside the Longhua factory in Shenzhen were between 22 and 25 years old, and with one exception have moved from the interior of China to the coast seeking work. None had worked at the factory for more than 2 years. They all wanted more overtime because the basic wage is not sufficient. The work week is 6 days long, with 8-10 hours each day.

The workers’ apartment blocks stand 10-15 floors tall and 1-2 metres apart. Two neighbours could easily shake hands if the window bars would allow it. The amount of clothing hanging to dry in the windows indicates that people live closely packed. Inside the factory complex there are several people to each room.

On ground level, in the back streets between the blocks there are computer game halls in every other block. After a day at the assembly line, bent over a mobile or a computer, they again sit in rows. Instead of meeting face to face in real life, they meet up in online games on some of the same computers they have been manufacturing all morning.

Better Than the Rural District
“Yes, I like my job!”  

A woman of 25 from Hunan Province is a smiling exception to the other workers we talked to: cheerful, satisfied and works only 5 days a week (compared with the norm of 6 days). She is also the only one who has advanced from the production line and now buys raw materials for Foxconn.    

In a larger context she is nevertheless an exception. Foxconn experiences great turnover of workers; as many as 50% quit every year. The workers earn more money than in the rural districts but soon discover that Foxconn is not a good career choice if they wish to achieve their own goals for the future.

Fences on the Roof
The roofs of the dormitory blocks at Foxconn’s factory in Shenzhen are surrounded by high wire fences, easily visible from the street. The fences were put up as a measure to stop a wave of suicides in 2010. Altogether 18 Foxconn workers died in the course of 2010, most of them employed at the factories in Shenzhen, and many by jumping to their death from the roof.

The suicides contributed to make organisations working to improve conditions for workers in China turn their attention to Foxconn and its most important costumer, Apple. The organisation SACOM has the past few years caused several critical headlines in the international press. SACOM has only two employees but a good network of researchers and students. From their small and crowded office in Hong Kong, some miles south of Shenzhen, Debby Chan has sent out several revealing reports on Foxconn.

“Tian Yu was only 17 years old when she jumped off the roof of the dormitory block – and survived. At that time she had worked for Foxconn for only a month,” Debby Chan related.

“The job at Foxconn was her first job. She had travelled far from her village and came to Foxconn, where she did not know anyone, except a cousin. She never managed to find the cousin, among half a million employees. At work she was accused of delaying the work and criticised for making mistakes. After working for a month she did not receive her salary and spent a whole day trying to find someone who could explain what had happened to it.

The sum of the humiliation gave Tien Yu the impetus to jump from the roof. She survived but became paralysed from the waist down. Thanks to the media attention and support from outside, her medical expenses were covered by Foxconn.

It took Foxconn and Apple a long time to take the suicides seriously, but they were eventually forced to take action. The fences were one of the first measures. But Foxconn gradually had to introduce measures that struck at the very root of the problem, such as increased wages and social programs. The 2010 social responsibility report describes one of many such measures: a speech and debate competition with the topic “I love the company – the company loves me”.      

Apple’s Angry Wasp
Organisations and campaigns such as SACOM, China Labour Watch and Make IT Fair have, after the suicides, followed Foxconn and Apple like angry wasps, with frequent new revelations about terrible working conditions, low wages and excessive overtime. The pressure against Apple increased, and in January of 2012 the company chose to join Fair Labour Association (FLA), an organisation that was to carry out independent evaluations of Apple’s suppliers, including Foxconn. Up until 2012 Apple was above the criticism and only exceptionally chose to answer queries about the production conditions. But in 2012 all of this was to change.

This is also our reason to visit Shenzhen and Hong Kong at the end of 2012: to ask workers and NGOs whether they have observed any difference.

During the first half of 2012 Apple and Foxconn signalled a will to do something about the problems. A hard-hitting audit of the factories by the FLA in March led to promises by Foxconn to correct everything soon. A new report by the same organisation in August 2012 concluded that most of the measures had already been carried out or were on the way.

The organisations we have spoken to in Hong Kong are not impressed by the effort.

The FLA’s August audit has been slaughtered as poor work by Economic Policy Institute. SACOM itself launched three studies in the course of 2012, based on interviews with workers in Zhengzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai. They revealed that workers were warned not to talk to researchers, journalists, or corporate-governed trade unions about massive and often unpaid overtime, low basic wages, students being pressured to work for Foxconn and harassment of workers. Among other things.

In the autumn of 2012 the human rights organisations in Hong Kong – there are none in Shenzhen – got help from international media in raising awareness on the situation.  
 
On 12 September Apple launched its latest pride, iPhone 5. Almost simultaneously Apple’s new image unravelled. In the course of a few short weeks the international media reported street fights at a Foxconn factory in Taiyuan between 2000 workers and security guards and a spontaneous strike by 3-4000 iPhone workers in Zhengzhou. A Chinese journalist got a job at Foxconn and supplied a detailed description of terrible living conditions, very hard and monotonous work, long working days, forced overtime and ruthless bosses. At another factory it was revealed how Foxconn got school students brought in as labour to be able to complete orders. The students were informed by their teachers that they had to work for Foxconn to have their education validated.

Apple Fans in Kowloon Tong
About 300 people are forming a queue at a shopping centre in Kowloon Tong in Hong Kong. It starts in front of an Apple store, winds around an atrium9, before it at the end makes three bends to make room for new people who join the queue. Those at the end of the queue have been told that the store is selling the new iPhone 5 and are prepared to wait for several hours.  Those at the front of have been waiting so long that they want to get in no matter what. The store employees who let the customers into the store by groups claim that there are no more iPhones left but make no wholehearted effort to inform the waiting customers of this.

The contrast between the shopping centres in Hong Kong and the factory areas in Shenzhen is enormous, both visually and economically. Moral dilemmas do not seem to hinder the average customer, either in Hong Kong or elsewhere in China. Even Apple Norway boasts on its web pages of having sold 2 million iPhone 5 worldwide the first week-end it was for sale.10 In December Apple announced that it would open its third store in Hong Kong to meet the demand.  

There is a great discrepancy between Apple’s promise of improvement at the beginning of 2012 and the extensive breaches of Chinese working environment laws half a year later.

Apple’s marketing model is likely a key factor. Apple has become one of the world’s leading companies by producing good, ground-breaking mobile phones – and by means of a special business model. The company gives no clues about its latest model, until a cryptic press release announces that something new is coming. Massive media coverage of the launch and long queues in front of its stores create a hype around the phone, with subsequent record sales and a steep increase in the share price.

“The workers we interviewed told us that they did little work before August. The basic wage was low, and the lack of overtime made them very badly off,” Debby Chan at Sacom told us.

“Then, suddenly in October, they had lots of work and more than 100 hours of overtime over a short period of time.”

Apple could start production several months ahead of time and store the phones. But Apple is dependent on having the shortest possible time from production to sale and least possible storage time for their products.

“I don’t think the production costs mean much for Apple,” Debby said.

Apple Harvest in the Media
Apple has many good helpers in the media. In the course of 2012 iPhone was mentioned 2907 times in Norwegian newspapers. The coverage was greatest in September, the month iPhone 5 was launched. Samsung and Apple, the mobile world’s fierce competitors, brought several lawsuits against each other around the world in 2012. Whereas Apple was mentioned 1856 time, Samsung received half as many mentions: 896.

The promises of improvement for the workers mean little when Apple has a new model ready. Shortly before the launch, production starts, with massive pressure on the workers at Foxconn, as illustrated by the work disruption and strike. Apple has probably kept its sight fixed on the share price. The company’s value increased rapidly after iPhone 5, before it fell after a few months.

Apple has also been profitable for Norway. Apple was the most profitable single investment for the Norwegian Government Pension Fund – Global in 2011, and the fund had at the end of 2011 (last public result) NOK 16 billion invested in the company (2.5 billion USD). The fund also had NOK 1.3 billion invested in Foxconn and its parent company Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd.

The short production time contributes to preventing information leaks on the phone’s specifications, which is important in the fierce competition between Apple and its adversaries. The secrecy has an impact all the way down to the production floor. The workers are hardly allowed to know what they are producing parts for, and they are not allowed to talk while working. They are thoroughly searched before leaving, to prevent them from taking parts out.

The size of Apple’s orders from their subcontractors creates a rush of companies that want to produce for Apple. But the profit is low; Apple has the power to force the prices far down, so the only way the suppliers can create a profit is to squeeze the workers.

Production Moves Inland
Shenzhen with its two huge Foxconn factories was an early centre for electronics production in China. This is changing. The provincial authorities in several large cities are surpassing each other in offering good terms to ensure that Foxconn places a factory in their province. Foxconn can offer a large number of jobs. The provincial authorities offer low minimum wages, low taxes and land or factory premises. In Chengdu Foxconn now has a factory with 164,000 workers, in Zhengzhou there are 180,000, in Taiyuan 79,000. Foxconn is also in the process of “hiring” 30,000 robots, with the nickname “Foxbots”. 

“It is impossible for Foxconn to expand on the coast,” says Ken Tze, a sociologist at the Polytechnic of Hong Kong and one of the academics attached to Sacom.

“Moreover, Foxconn can pay lower wages inland, where the cost of living is lower. It claims that it is moving to give the workers shorter trips home. But the workers scarcely have time for vacation or leisure, and the trip inland can still stretch over a whole day.

“Relevant for You”
“People in Norway must ask themselves whether this is a system they want,” says Fahmi Panimbang of Asia Monitor Research Centre (AMRC) . “The problems of the factories in the supply chain also concern you in the North.”

“This is a system that is problematic in itself. Industrial production moves to those countries that can offer the lowest costs and the lowest wages.”

First of all this affects the workers in China, who get long workdays, poor working conditions, low wages and problems working themselves out of poverty. In the long run this may backfire on us, who have given up jobs to low-cost countries.

“This system is illegal, immoral and unethical. It is also a race to the bottom; when all factory production moves to China, there will be no jobs left in Norway, which will hurt you. This is not only a question of ethics but about your own good: if you accept that this is OK in China, it will in the end fall back on you,” Fahmi states.

Expanding worldwide
Foxconn is also expanding into the rest of the world. It already has factories in Brazil, the Czech Republic and India. There are rumours that it will establish itself in the USA. The goal is to double the size of the company and become one of the world’s largest companies.

Together with Foxconn, Apple set a new standard for mobile phones, tablets, and technological development.
    
At the same time, Apple and Foxconn have the economic force to set a standard for working conditions and wages, not only in China but also in other countries where Foxconn establishes itself. So far, the wage has been low and the work pace high, to ensure profit. But the companies are under pressure to increase the wage and standard, to avoid negative publicity. Which aspect wins will influence the living conditions for several million employees in the electronics field. It may also influence what kind of working environment we will have in our part of the world in a decade.




Is Apple Worse Than Its Competitors?

Apple has been criticised for bad working conditions in the production. Is the competitors’ situation just as bad?

“Yes, I think so,” Debby Chan at SACOM answers. “And the situation is about the same in other IT industries.”

“Apple is bad because it attaches great importance to secrecy,” Ken Tze Yau says. “We attach importance to Apple because it is a leader and because it has the economy and strength to change the conditions. It helps that Apple is well known by the consumers.”

During the past few years Samsung has become a fierce competitor for Apple and now receives deserved attention with regard to its working conditions. A report from the autumn of 2012 by China Labour Watch called attention to approximately the same problems in Chinese Samsung factories as in Foxconn’s.

Fahmi at AMRC is about to finish a report on Samsung in Indonesia, where the company is criticised for hindering independent unionising.

“Samsung counteracts independent trade unions. I visited Indonesia, where the workers now have an independent trade union recognised by the authorities.”

Samsung has also been criticised for working conditions in South Korea.24                      



Can you do something about Apple?

We have asked some of those we spoke with in Hong Kong and Shenzhen what involved mobile phone users in Norway can do:

“Pressure from customers contributes to making the companies take the situation seriously. To send a postcard or an e-mail to Apple and to sign petitions are easy and honest measures that can help.”
Debby Chan, SACOM

“I think consumers have to realise that they don’t have much influence on the system or the basic conditions. But one way you can make a difference is quite simply to send an e-mail to the company from which you wish to buy a mobile and say that you are willing to pay a little extra if the company can guarantee that the workers are well paid.”
Geoff Crothall, China Labour Bulletin

“You don’t need to change phone every year; wait until it stops working. When consumers stand in line for the latest model, a pressure is created that makes the workers’ conditions worse. Your phone is your tool, not something you own to boast about.
Ken Tze Yau

“We must challenge the system, listen to the workers and build solidarity.”
Fahmi, AMRC
- Annonse -