Apple Fails to Deliver on Key Labor Rights Promises, but the Company’s Chosen Labor Rights Monitor Finds Little Fault
The third and final verification assessment by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) of remediation steps at three Foxconn factories making Apple products led to a raft of stories with headlines touting the progress on worker rights at Apple’s largest supplier Foxconn. While some reforms reported – such as reducing work weeks somewhat (though not to levels in accordance with Chinese law) and certain safety and health improvements – do represent steps forward, progress has been scant in fundamental areas and critical promises have apparently gone unfulfilled. Unfortunately, it is still accurate to describe Apple’s supply chain as rife with labor rights abuses.
The FLA ignores crucial reforms promised by Apple and Foxconn, including increasing wages enough to offset reductions in work hours, providing back pay for uncompensated work time, and making progress towards a livable wage standard. On March 29, 2012, the FLA described the basic remedial actions to be undertaken by Foxconn and Apple, including the promises that compensation at Foxconn factories would increase enough to offset any reduction in overtime hours; that Foxconn and Apple would provide retroactive pay for the many circumstances in which workers had not been compensated for all their overtime hours; and that a study would be undertaken to determine the amount of compensation necessary to provide for basic needs (according to the FLA’s own survey, nearly two-thirds of workers said their compensation did not provide them enough to meet their basic needs).
The FLA has not reported progress regarding any of these critical promises; indeed, the final report does not mention them at all.
The FLA reports as progress potentially meaningless changes in worker representation. The final verification report notes there has been no further progress regarding union elections, but glosses over the fact the second FLA verification treated as full remedies changes in the composition of union leadership committees that are potentially meaningless. The FLA touted significant progress in the proportion of union committees that actually consist of workers as opposed to managers (in January 2013, 39 percent workers/61 per cent managers in the Guanlan factory – up from zero worker representation in June 2012; 41 percent in the Longhua facility – from 10 percent; and 29.5 percent in the Chengdu factory – from 7 percent). The FLA write-up, however, ignores the central point: the majority of the union leadership, in all of these facilities, is still composed of factory managers. Moreover, the FLA does not assess the actual influence of these committees. Even if the majority of the members of these committees are eventually workers, it is far from clear that will they have any significant voice when it comes to decisions made at these factories. An analysis by SACOM raises plausible concerns that sham unions may be the outcome.
Overtime hours still consistently violate Chinese law, despite promises that illegal overtime would end by July 2013, and Foxconn does not even comply with Apple’s own weaker standard of 60 hours per week. In its very first verification report, the FLA indicated that no workers at the three Foxconn factories had to work more than 60 hours per week. Other sources contradicted this finding, and the latest report itself finds that in one of the three factories, the Guanlan facility, this standard was not met during seven weeks of the seven-month period examined by the FLA for its final report (March-October 2013).
Work weeks of 60 hours, however, are still well in excess of the maximum allowed under Chinese law, and the FLA-related promise was that the factories would comply with Chinese law by July 2013, meaning Foxconn and Apple had 15 months from the initial FLA findings report to comply with the legal standard. Nonetheless, while the FLA reports that this standard is now incorporated into Foxconn’s policies at the three factories, the FLA also reports the standard is not met in practice. In the March-October 2013 period, an average of 67 percent of workers at Longhua and 56 percent at Gunlan worked hours in excess of Chinese law. While nearly all workers at Chengdu worked hours in accordance with Chinese law from March through June, during the July-October period 78 percent to 84 percent worked hours that exceeded Chinese law.
Contrary to what Apple indicated, the FLA process has covered fewer than one-fifth of the workers in Apple’s supply chain. Other information suggests severe labor rights abuses continue throughout Apple’s supply chain.
Apple announced its commitment to the FLA process in February 2012, stating at that time that “Similar inspections [to those of Foxconn] will be conducted at Quanta and Pegatron factories later this Spring, and when completed, the FLA’s assessment will cover facilities where more than 90 percent of Apple products are assembled.” Yet the FLA has only presented information on three Foxconn facilities, now employing 178,000 workers, fewer than one-fifth of the more than one million workers Apple says are in its supply chain. No reports have been issued by the FLA on Quanta, Pegatron or any other Apple production facility. Moreover, it is clear from independent reports that serious labor rights violations are rampant in other Foxconn factories and throughout Apple’s supply chain (a reality also revealed, in significant respects, by Apple’s own annual “supplier responsibility” report). For example, China Labor Watch released a report in July 2013 on Pegatron, Apple’s second largest supplier. It found that Pegatron violates 17 specific commitments made by Apple in its code of conduct, ranging from widespread hiring discrimination, to the significant misuse of underage workers, to forced and uncompensated overtime.
We and others have made these points before (our pieces on the previous FLA verification studies can be found here and here, our assessment of Apple’s broken promises can be found here, and a synthesis of labor rights abuses connected to the production of the new iPhones is here).
Much of the media coverage of the FLA reports still emphasizes whatever progress Apple/Foxconn/FLA claim, while neglecting promised remedies that never materialized and in some cases are no longer even acknowledged. Perhaps this reflects the numeric remedial completion score of 98.9 percent that the FLA gives Foxconn/Apple, a figure that is only this high because the FLA gives full credit in areas such as union committees where no real progress may have occurred, because the completion of any small step is given as much weight as the failure to achieve absolutely fundamental measures such as complying with Chinese labor law, and because the remedial steps measured ignore altogether some of the most essential reforms required, such as those related to wage increases. The use of these kinds of arbitrary statistical measures is deeply misleading and borders on numerology.
In short, while Apple has encouraged some progress on working conditions within its supply chain, this progress may apply to less than one fifth of Apple’s supply chain workers, is partial at best on some issues, and on others is nonexistent. The FLA’s arbitrary assignment of a 99 percent “score” to Apple’s and Foxconn’s performance obscures the underlying reality: the world’s wealthiest corporation has largely failed to deliver on its promise to end egregious and illegal abuses of the workers who make its products – even though this is a promise the company can easily afford.
*For more information on the working conditions at Apple suppliers in China, see www.AppleLabor.com