Apple has recently attracted a lot of press over worker suicides at Foxconn, the gigantic Taiwanese-owned electronics assembly company. Foxconn assembles iPhones, for example. It also assembles gadgets for many other major electronics brands. It’s hard to imagine, but Foxconn employs 300,000 people at a single plant in Shenzhen alone, equivalent to the current population of New Orleans.
Apple’s support of Chinese industry during a US recession has seen it criticised by former Intel CEO Andy Grove, who attacks the naive “Start-ups, not bail-outs” arguments of Thomas Friedman. Grove argues for “job-centric economics”:
Most Americans probably aren’t aware that there was a time in this country when tanks and cavalry were massed on Pennsylvania Avenue to chase away the unemployed. It was 1932; thousands of jobless veterans were demonstrating outside the White House. Soldiers with fixed bayonets and live ammunition moved in on them, and herded them away from the White House. In America! Unemployment is corrosive.
Back to Foxconn and Apple working standards. According to the NY Times:
The body of a 19-year-old worker named Ma Xiangqian was found in front of his high-rise dormitory at 4:30 a.m. Police investigators concluded that he had leapt from a high floor, and they ruled it a suicide.
His family, including his 22-year-old sister who worked at the same company, Foxconn Technology, said he hated the job he had held only since November — an 11-hour overnight shift, seven nights a week, forging plastic and metal into electronics parts amid fumes and dust. Or at least that was Mr. Ma’s job until, after a run-in with his supervisor, he was demoted in December to cleaning toilets.
Mr. Ma’s pay stub shows that he worked 286 hours in the month before he died, including 112 hours of overtime, about three times the legal limit. For all of that, even with extra pay for overtime, he earned the equivalent of $1 an hour.
“The factory was always abusing my brother,” the sister, Ma Liqun, said tearfully last week.
(Some tech industry writers/Apple groupies, brandishing their supposedly superior grasp of statistics and trumpeting their consequent superiority over other hacks, claim that since the suicide rate at Foxconn is lower than the average for China, working for Foxconn lowers a Chinese person’s risk of suicide. They are missing the point – surrounding greater misery does not excuse lesser misery.)
A fairly terrifying reflection of Foxconn’s attitudes (and Chinese society) is revealed by a BBC story of 9 June, explaining that Foxconn will no longer pay compensation to the families of workers who commit suicide, as paying such compensation might encourage further suicides. This rather suggests Foxconn has limited confidence in its ability to keep its workers happy.
Apple is clearly feeling the heat a little, as their front page currently carries a link to an explanation of the environmental* and working standards they expect from their suppliers. The Apple Supplier Code of Conduct, is careful to adhere to International Labour Organisation standards in respect of child labour, but in at least two other areas it makes for disquieting reading.
In 1919, ninety one years ago, the Hours of Work Convention of the General Conference of the International Labour Organisation (convened, by the way, by the US government) settled on 48 hours as the maximum working week. The Apple standard in 2010? SIXTY hours a week. Ninety one years after the ILO limited working hours to 48 a week, Apple is content for its supplier to bind employees to the mill for up to 60 hours a week.
There’s also an alarming reference in the supplier code to limited entrance and exit “privileges” from worker dormitories, where standards are expected only to be “reasonable”. Since when is freedom of movement for adults a “privilege”?
* Apple is ranked better than many other computer makers by Greenpeace.