French investigative report adds to concerns that conditions faced by iPhone 5 workers remain dire

An undercover documentary report recently aired on France’s public television station found disturbing new evidence that the living and working conditions of the factory workers making the iPhone 5 are grim. The new report adds to the overall picture described in Polishing Apple: Fair Labor Association gives Foxconn and Apple undue credit for labor rights progress; optimistic reports that reforms at Foxconn, which assembles the iPhone 5 for Apple, are going swimmingly are entirely premature.

A story on Engadget provides an English summary of the investigation, which can be found in full (but in French). The story reported that at Foxconn’s iPhone 5 factory in Zhengzhou:

  • Many workers are living in unfinished dorms that have no elevators, electricity, or running water.
  • Eight workers living in dorms with electricity were killed in a fire caused by workers plugging electronic devices into overloaded circuits, according to the reporters’ translation of a safety speech given by a Foxconn supervisor.
  • Student workers are still being forced to work there, including 16-year old students who said their teachers told them they would not earn their diplomas if they refused to participate in a three-month “internship” which amounted to assembly line work, including night shifts. The students also believed their scholarships were at risk. Their parents tried to stop this arrangement, to no avail.1
  • Wages are still substantially absorbed by payments back to the company for housing, insurance, and food, and work hours can still be excessively long.

The documentary finds these brutal living and working conditions are driven by Foxconn’s efforts to meet iPhone 5 demand.

The picture painted by the French documentary is consistent with the Polishing Apple findings regarding the interim assessment report of reforms at Foxconn by the Fair Labor Association. Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium and I co-authored this comprehensive analysis of whether these reforms in the wake of criticism of Foxconn have been as positive as the FLA indicated in its late August interim assessment. To recap, in early November we concluded that the FLA’s rosy view of developments in Apple’s supply chain was unfounded, for five reasons:

  • Foxconn receives a perfect completion score from the FLA—with the FLA saying Foxconn had made full progress on all interim reforms—only because the FLA gives Foxconn credit for reforms that are either incomplete or purely symbolic. For instance, the FLA grants Foxconn full credit for increasing the number of workers on a 32-person union leadership committee from two to “at least three”; the other 29 members can still be factory managers.
  • Modest progress reported by the FLA in the early summer of 2012 in important areas such as excessive overtime and the use of coerced student labor was not sustained by at least some Foxconn factories by August/September, as labor practices predictably deteriorated when Foxconn ramped up production to meet iPhone 5 demand.
  • One essential promise made by the FLA and Apple—that Foxconn workers would receive back pay for all cases in which overtime work had been illegally undercompensated—was broken, and the FLA’s justification for this breach is wholly unpersuasive.
  • The most fundamental remedies necessary to address Foxconn’s ongoing violation of overtime laws, including ending violations of local law and ensuring that pay rates are increased so that there is no net loss of compensation as hours are reduced, have not occurred, and their completion is not even scheduled until July 2013.
  • Independent reports paint a picture that contrasts sharply with the FLA’s. The findings of a Sept. 2012 report by the independent research group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) directly contradict key elements of the FLA assessment. Moreover, in September and October, Chinese media and major U.S. news outlets reported several disturbing developments, some of which are in the same areas where the FLA found progress, including: continued use of underage labor by Foxconn, involving workers as young as 14; forced overtime in the production of the iPhone 5, which meant denial of leave for workers during a major Chinese national holiday that affords a rare opportunity for workers to return home to visit their families; and large-scale labor unrest and protests at two Foxconn factories.

When Engadget contacted Apple and Foxconn about the French documentary, both responded with standard language that they are committed to positive reforms, without responding to any of the specific findings in the documentary, which suggests that those commitments are not being fulfilled. The workers making Apple products continue to require more than rhetorical commitments; they still need fundamental reforms to their living and working conditions.


1. Certain details concerning these students cannot be found in the Engadget story; these details were gathered as I watched parts of the French documentary with French-speaking colleagues.