Pay Raises Won't End Chinese Factory Abuses

The biggest story in tech for the past few weeks has not been about a phone or tablet, but a set of poorly treated workers in China. When the New York Times published an expose about dangerous and abusive working conditions at Foxconn's Apple production facilities, the paper started a wave of news coverage about labor abuses and inspired a number of activist groups to demand a "ethical iPhone." Sensing the damage to its reputation and potential impact on sales, Apple has responded by inviting third party inspectors from the Fair Labor Association into its suppliers' plants and Foxconn has announced that it's giving workers a 16 to 25 percent raise.

Unfortunately, neither raises nor inspections that double as photo ops will fix the system-wide problems that should bother us. By focusing their attention on Apple alone, both activists and press are minimizing the scope of abuses that are much worse at non-Foxconn facilities.

If you were a fly on the wall at a Chinese electronic factory and could see everything without being detected, would it be the low pay checks given to the workers that really pulled at your heart strings? Or would it be:

  • Abusive Supervisors: At many factories, workers are berated and verbally abused by their bosses in ways that wouldn't even fly at a prison labor facility in the U.S. According to an investigation conducted by China Labor Watch (CLW),  At Catcher Electronics, a supplier that makes phones and notebooks for Dell, Apple, Nokia, ASUS, Acer, Sony, Motorola and IBM, the supervisors often berate workers and even worse "the department head will sometimes use corporal punishment, physically hitting workers."At other facilities, workers aren't physically struck, but are punished like bad children and humiliated publicly. For example, at Foxconn's Longhua plant, CLW found that: Some discipline practices that workers who make mistakes are subject to are abusive and insulting. This includes: workers are required to write a report of at least 500 words and post the report with their photo on the wall; workers are required to stand still for thirty minutes to four hours, etc.  It's hard to imagine that even providing a 25 percent raise will do anything to stop this kind of abusive treatment. I can't imagine a supervisor saying "we can't make this worker write a humiliating self-assessment test; he's earning a full 1,800 yuan ($290) per month. 
  • Poor Safety Conditions: When Fair Labor Association President Aurent van Heerden said Foxconn's plants were "way, way above the avrage of the norm," he may have been correct as China Labor Watch found fewer safety issues at the Foxconn plants they investigated last spring than those run by other suppliers. According to CLW, at Catcher Electronics, workers who are exposed to noxious gases wear masks that aren't good enough to stop them from smelling the nauseating fumes. At a Compal plant, workers reported that there are no first aid kits and, when injuries occur, the supervisor just hands out cotton.  
  • Extremely Long Hours: Despite an accepted limit of 60 hours per week per employee, many companies require their employees to work a lot more than that, with no ability to turn down overtime. For example, at the Hongkai Electronic Technology plant in Dongguan, workers reported being required to labor 11 to 12 hours a day for 30 days a month from September to November. And this is physically and mentally taxing work too.
  • No Talking, Bathroom Breaks: At many factories, CLW reports, workers get very few breaks, perhaps even just one 10-minute break all day. A lot of supervisors will not allow workers to get out of the line to go to the bathroom so workers try not to drink anything. According to CLW, workers at the MSI factory are even forbidden from talking during their shifts.
  • Repetitive, Machine-Like Work: CLW reports that workers in an HP production line were forced to complete an action every 3 seconds while standing for 10 hours straight. Imagine standing there, having to turn your brain off, and just act like an automaton all day long.
  • Unpaid Labor: Whether they're forced to pay recruitment fees that equal weeks or even months of salary, fined several days' worth of salary for minor mistakes, or not paid for any outstanding days when they resign, suppliers' find lots of ways to avoid paying their employees. So, even if they receive a raise, there's no guarantee workers won't lose some or all of that money due to abuses.
  • Sub-human Living Conditions: At most factories, at least some of the workers live on campus. The dorms sometimes pack over a dozen people into the same room, with unsanitary conditions surrounding them. At Flextronics, CLW reports that:The sanitary conditions of the factory cafeteria are very poor. Interviewed workers all said that there are frequently worms, flies, or other foreign objects in the soup or food. 

Though leading labor watchdogs like China Labor Watch's Li Qiang and SumOfUs's Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman say that having Apple pay higher rates to suppliers should help these problems, it's clear that it will take more than just dollars to stop abuses that come from a fundamental disrespect of the workers as human beings. Who can say how much dignity would cost?

Inspections can help, if they're done by an objective third party. There were questions about the Fair Labor Association's objectivity before it set foot in a single Foxconn factory, and it all but proved that it's not acting in good faith when its president released a set of conclusions after just two days of investigation had passed.

However, even if the FLA or other inspection groups really tried their best to ferret out abuses, they'd have a hard time getting to the truth. The CLW report states that most of the factories cleaned up their acts when inspectors were around, making it look like they were safer than they were. Worker reports can help, but advocates I talked to feel that those reports should be collected via hotline, not right there in the factory where workers may not feel as comfortable in registering complaints, even with the promise of anonymity.

Workers in developing countries are not going to earn the same minimum wage or attain the same standard are living that most gadget users enjoy. But no matter their salaries, all workers deserve to be treated like human beings rather than disposable parts.

A voluntary humane labor certification system in the style of EPEAT's environmental ratings could help, but what's needed most is an unyielding commitment to human dignity at every link in the supply chain, from suppliers to consumers. As end users, we need to demand a verifiable culture of respect wherever our devices are made. It's not about some workers we'll never meet who live half a world away; it's about what kind of people we want to be.