The most annoying responses to the revelations about Apple’s inhumane and exploitative factory pay and working conditions in China are the variations on the theme that the Chinese workers are grateful (or ought to be) to have the work and even the grueling overtime hours. “Sure, it looks like exploitation to Westerners, but really, Apple is lifting their living standards.” No. Apple is exploiting these young Chinese workers, grinding them down, forcing them to work for pay so low they can’t survive on it without working far beyond anything fair or reasonable – or even legal under Chinese labor law. And the workers don’t have a choice; they either work the overtime or they’re fired.
The Fair Labor Association, Apple’s hand-picked auditor, found that Apple’s most important supplier, Foxconn, works employees far beyond the hours permitted by Apple’s code of conduct (a maximum of 60 hours per week), let alone Chinese law, which limits work hours to 49 per week. The FLA reports that “in November and December 2011, 34% and 46% of the workforce respectively worked up to 70 hours per week.” Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based labor rights organization, has documented Foxconn employees working 140 hours of overtime a month.
Keith Bradsher’s recent “news analysis” in the New York Times, “Two Sides to Labor in China,” blamed the workers for these sweatshop hours and tried to portray them in a positive light. Bradsher wrote: “But one reason that workweeks of 60 hours or more have been possible at factories run by Foxconn and others is that at least some laborers already on the payroll have wanted the extra hours.”
Bradsher believes the employees have a choice about working 60-70 hours a week. He writes that “the added expense of hiring additional workers can make it cheaper to ask employees for extra overtime…” Ask? When Foxconn employees were throwing themselves out of dormitory windows, committing suicide in reaction to the harsh conditions at Foxconn, the company reduced work hours to 60 a week, but it didn’t give workers a choice about working them. As an Oct. 2010 SACOM report revealed, “Despite fatigue, workers cannot reject overtime work, because Foxconn requires workers to sign a Voluntary Overtime Pledge.”
Bradsher cites the FLA’s survey of Foxconn employees, 34 percent of whom reported they “actually wanted even more hours.” How can workers want more than 60 hours a week? Bradsher says they’re young and bored, have nothing better to do, “and were eager to make as much money as possible so as to return to their home villages.” He never suggests that their pay is so low they can’t survive working the legal maximum number of hours. But that is exactly what SACOM found in 2010 when it compared the cost of living in Foxconn’s factory cities with Foxconn’s pay. Without overtime, the average Foxconn production employee earned about 60 percent of what was required to meet basic needs. Today, after wage increases that have been offset by higher food prices and what Bradsher admits are “soaring rents,” 72 percent of Foxconn employees at Chengdu told the FLA their salaries did not cover basic needs.
So when Apple apologists tell you that “the Chinese are different, they want to work long hours,” don’t buy it. The richest corporation in the world is grinding its workers to the bone because it can get away with it, not because the workers want to live that way.