Although the United States has its share of labor issues, they pale in comparison, both in number and gravity, to labor atrocities everyday in countries with fewer – or zero – protections for workers. In China, the horrible working conditions of Foxconn, a manufacturer of Apple technology, have been well documented for months. This week, though, Foxconn stated that it plans to improve its workplaces for the company’s 1.2 million employees – a group that previously made headlines for threats of mass suicides.
Labor law, human rights law, and general ethics all demanded the switch. But with nearly-nonexistent legal protections for workers in China, Foxconn’s only previous foray into labor and employment law was its requirement that employees and their families agree not to take legal action against the manufacturer for any instances of self-inflicted injury or suicide. Even after this week’s announcement, the new protections for workers will have no grounding in law.
Instead, the driving force behind the change in tone and, hopefully in practice for China’s largest employer came from a traditionally unlikely source in the employee/employer relationship: the employer’s client. Faced with pressure from consumers advocating for more ethical products and better treatment for the labor force, as well as backlash from shareholder activists, Apple channeled this pressure toward Foxconn. In a situation where the law, ethics and the basic principles of human rights should rule, it was instead the growing public relations debacle and trained lens of negative attention aimed at Apple that made all the difference.
The technology giant hired the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to review labor practices at factories across China. The audit was not without controversy, as other labor advocates criticized the FLA’s failure to find substantial flaws with Foxconn facilities. In fact, FLA’s CEO stated, “The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm.”
Despite criticism of the audit, the fact remains that it was the largest-ever review of the international labor practices of an American company in China, and so far, has signified that change is coming. With vocal, well-to-do American buyers clamoring for improvements, the changes to working conditions – significantly better pay, shorter hours, more access to family members through video conferencing, nicer dormitory conditions and food and more variation of worker tasks – are considered well worth it to the corporations Foxconn supplies. Apple has stated that it will cover the costs, figuring that the improvements are a small price to pay to retain ethics-conscious consumers.
While the upcoming changes at Foxconn factories in China will improve to some extent the lives of 1.2 million workers, a large percentage of the rest of China’s more than 1.3 billion people will continue to labor in unsafe and even inhumane conditions. For the millions whose small part in the massive global supply chain does not contribute to a pricey phone sold by a company with a socially conscious image, conditions will not change. Apple’s actions certainly support better workplace practice transparency and will spur workplace adjustments and improvements. As a whole, though, China is woefully behind in offering any type of protections for workers.
Still workers in China will need more than Apple’s public relations battle to initiate change in their own workplaces. Even the promised improvements in Foxconn can be ignored as nothing more than high aspirations because no accountability system has been produced between Apple and Foxconn. With a lack of enforcement, working conditions will probably improve insignificantly unless pressure is sustained on the issue.
To see an article detailing the most recent Apple/Foxconn labor agreement, please click here.
To read an article noting FLA’s audit of Foxconn, please visit this link.