Mar 302012
 

The FLA has performed a preliminary audit of 3 Foxconn plants and by looking at my RSS tech feed, it doesn’t look good. Ars Technica reports “Apple supplier in violation of labor and safety rules, outside audit says”, trusted news source Gizmodo says “Overworked and In Danger: The Full Foxconn Labor Report” and even The Unofficial Apple Website (TUAW) tells us “Fair Labor Association finds multiple violations at Foxconn facilities”.

Holy shit: Mike Daisey was right!

Because I’ve been burned in the past by the “truthiness” of tech blog headlines in relation to actual facts, I actually took the time to download and read the FLA report. Turns out they did find violations of their “10 Principles of Fair Labor and Responsible Sourcing”, but maybe not as egregious as some of headlines would have you believe.

Labor

The most-often cited violation, as you probably guessed, involved the amount of overtime worked. You’d think that’d be cut and dried, but it’s not. You see, there are 2 standards relevant to the amount of overtime worked in China. The FLA upholds a standard of a maximum 60 hour work week (40 hours + 20 hours overtime). Curiously, the Chinese law states that maximum consist of 40 hours + 36 hours overtime per month, or 9 hours a week. Why would the FLA standard be higher? Maybe China has more interest in the number of people working than the number of hours people work, or maybe their government is just a big ol’ teddy bear after all.

Anyway, the 3 Foxconn plants visited by the FLA had at times violated both the FLA standard and the more stringent Chinese standard, most flagrantly during the months of November – January. The average work week was just over the FLA maximum of 60 hours (61.05 hours). There was also violations of the “7 consecutive days working without a 24 hour rest” standard. 11.57 days was average of those surveyed when asked what the longest number of days they worked consecutively. Sounds like Foxconn didn’t get the memo on that one.

Interestingly, the FLA also asked workers if they thought they were working too much. Half those surveyed (48.4%) said their hours were reasonable compared to 17.8% who said they weren’t. The other 34%? They said they’d like to work more to make more money. Guess those people aren’t going to like the plan Foxconn has for complying with the FLA’s findings. They’ve pledged to pare back overtime hours (and therefore hire more people) to comply with the more stringent Chinese law by July 2013.

There were also issues with the handling of internships and the benefits covering interns. Apple and Foxconn have agreed to a number of steps that will better integrate interns into the benefit system deployed for the larger worker population.

Sadly, the FLA did not find any incidents of underaged labor, so Mike Daisey: still a liar.

Safety

Despite the doomsday scenario painted in some headlines, issues with worker safety were almost exclusively those of worker perception as opposed to actual observed conditions that were a danger to worker safety. To explain, in addition to auditing conditions, the FLA surveyed thousands of employees. The questions about safety involved how “safe” the workers themselves felt. I though one particular question, “Have you ever experienced or witnessed an accident in this factory?” was particularly leading, sort of like “Were you ever or do you know anyone who was the victim of a violent crime?”. Of course a majority of the respondants are going answer in the affirmative. In this case of Foxconn, 43.3% responded “yes”. I would be more interested in “Have you ever been the victim of an accident while working?” as a indicator of actual safety conditions, but I guess that’s why I’m not in China doing audits for the FLA.

As far as actual violations, the report mentions miscellaneous infractions by way of summary such as “blocked exits, lack of or faulty personal protective equipment, and missing permits”. It was also noted that these many of these conditions “have already been remedied.”

As you can imagine, the FLA also paid particular attention to the issue of aluminum dust:

Our assessors did identify some machines at which sensors, hoods or barriers needed to be connected to automatic cut-out mechanisms to prevent workers from reaching into the machines, and they also flagged the use of compressed air in some sections where it could pose a risk.

Again, it was noted that “A number of these issues were rectified immediately.”

Wages & Benefits

Another focus of the report, pay and the administration of benefits was covered extensively through direct observation and survey. Although the FLA did find that the credit of overtime needed some re-tooling (Foxconn’s policy was to pay in 30 minute increments (i.e. if you worked 28 minutes, you didn’t get OT) and worker meetings were not thought to qualify for OT when they should), compensation was deemed adequate. Of course workers surveyed were split in their opinions about how well they felt they were compensated (only 35.7% felt that their wages were “sufficient to cover basic needs”), something I think that many of us can identify with personally. The FLA recommended a “cost of living” analysis for each of factories to see how far apart perception and reality are.

I’m not going to say much about how the myriad benefits are applied, because their application is convoluted by the transferability of rights of migrant workers have (mostly don’t have) in their home provinces. It’s an situation that both Foxconn and Apple have committed to studying, if not improving.

I’d encourage people to download the report and draw their own conclusions. I personally didn’t find any “holy shit!” moments, but my bias is obvious in the name of my blog. Two things I’d like to mention in closing. First, this was not an official FLA audit. Apple requested that the FLA come in immediately to get a lay of the land, so these conditions were documented cold. I like that Apple did this, because it will give them a better starting point, but I do feel that many of the issues documented would have been resolved if the FLA’s insertion wasn’t so sudden. I expect conditions to improve markedly as the FLA becomes a fixture at these facilities. Second, I’d like to invite all of Apple’s peers to enlist the involvement of the FLA. Or they could continue to hide behind what Apple does and remain blissfully mute about the conditions on their own production lines.

You can probably tell which of these two scenarios I think will play out.

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