The New York Times and the reporters of its Dec. 26 story—“Signs of Changes Taking Hold in Electronics Factories in China”—deserve much credit for raising the profile of the abusive conditions faced by the workers making Apple products, helping to spur promises of reform. But the latest story, while portraying internal changes at Apple that could lead to reforms and describing the possibility that Apple and its competitors may advance a new manner of operating globally, provides surprisingly little evidence or analysis of the degree to which improvements have been made. It thus never gets to the heart of the matter: So far, Apple’s pledges of sweeping change have not been matched by major reforms in working conditions.
The vision painted by the story is one labor advocates, and presumably many Apple customers, share. When it comes to working hours, compensation, and other working conditions, Apple’s main supplier Foxconn will make the reforms necessary to raise standards dramatically, leading to a “ripple effect that benefits tens of millions of workers across the electronics industry.”
As ostensible evidence of Apple’s leadership and commitment to that vision, the article notes, for example, that Apple has hired 30 new staff members for its social responsibility unit and put two respected and influential former Apple executives in charge. The article also notes earlier and recent statements from Apple and Foxconn pledging to accomplish a great deal for factory workers.
The article is surprisingly thin, however, when it comes to assessing whether this vision is being fulfilled. The report includes a long vignette about the new, comfortable work chair provided to one Foxconn employee (in which the reporters argue that this helped lead her to view her job and her life prospects in a positive new manner). At other points, the article refers to some reductions in work hours, some safety improvements, a partial Foxconn response to ending the abuses of student interns, and some wage improvements. If all this sounds kind of fuzzy, that’s because it is. (Despite Apple’s avowed commitment to transparency on these issues, hard information, such as how much wages increased and for how many workers, is difficult to come by.)
But dedicated labor rights monitors at Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) and China Labor Watch, as well as other journalists (including the producers of a recent exposé on French TV), have uncovered substantial evidence bearing on the question of whether working conditions have changed significantly since Apple and Foxconn made their labor rights pledges early in 2012. These findings, which we analyzed in depth in November, and discussed in a recent blog post, paint a very different picture from the one emerging from the Times’ most recent reportage. These findings include:
- Many Foxconn workers are living in unfinished dorms that have no elevators, electricity, or running water.
- Student workers are still being forced to work at these factories, despite Foxconn’s and Apple’s repeated pledges to halt this practice.
- Modest progress in Foxconn working conditions during the summer of 2012 predictably reversed as iPhone 5 production ramped up. Excessive work hours returned, including employees working with no days off for long periods of time, and subjected to forced overtime.
- In March, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which Apple joined in February, announced that Apple and Foxconn would retroactively pay workers for the many hours they were found to have worked without pay; various forms of overtime were not compensated at all. Apple has since gone quiet on this issue, and in correspondence with the Worker Rights Consortium, the FLA appears to indicate this promise will not be kept.
One further piece of information, that was indirectly unveiled by the story, also suggests working conditions not only have failed to improve since March, but may have deteriorated somewhat. The Times story lauds Apple for creating a new monthly report on excessive work hours at their suppliers, but fails to describe what the report shows. The relevant Apple chart depicts that of the 1 million employees at Apple suppliers in November, 12 percent, or 120,000 employees, worked hours that exceeded Apple’s 60-week standard. This appears to be the second-worst monthly compliance rate of the year.1
Overall, our recent comprehensive review found that “improvements in working conditions at Foxconn have in most cases been modest, fleeting, or purely symbolic.” The new Times story does not provide evidence that would lead to a different conclusion. (A subsequent Times editorial does reflect some of the concerns outlined above.)
Will the future be different?
Read in isolation, the Times story might convince the reader that the future will be altogether different, given the dramatic pro-reform statements made by Foxconn’s CEO and by Apple. A little context, however, provides less optimism. The often-horrific working and living conditions experienced by workers at Foxconn and other Apple suppliers, while helpfully amplified by Times stories in early 2012, were depicted in other independent reports for many years before. Then as well, Apple and Foxconn said reforms would be advanced; but these reforms, for the most part, did not occur. For example, Apple has been pledging reforms to reduce illegally excessive overtime since 2006.
The latest Times story ignores this context. It unduly assumes the sincerity of statements by corporate executives who have a long history of dissembling on labor rights matters, and of reaping enormous financial gains from continuing exploitative practices. In particular, according to the story, Terry Gou, the founder and chairman of Foxconn, was shocked and appalled upon hearing of violations of labor law at Foxconn factories identified by the FLA in March 2012—even though these violations have been well known to Gou for years, having been the subject of numerous reports by independent investigators and journalists and, in many cases, having been previously admitted by Apple and Foxconn. It may be the case, if there is genuine pressure—and financial support—from Apple and other customers, that Foxconn will ultimately implement major and sustained labor rights. However, the idea that Foxconn, as the story suggests, will do this (or is doing this) because of its leader’s moral outrage at new information of labor rights abuses is absurd.
It also should have come as no surprise to the Times that Apple responded to the reputational crisis it faced since early 2012 with a series of statements and actions that it presented to the world as evidence of a deep commitment to labor rights progress. This is how companies dependent upon the strength of their brand image invariably respond to a public relations debacle as serious as the one confronting Apple. Unfortunately, such gestures often turn out to be empty, serving to create the appearance of change, and thereby diffuse the reputational crisis, without auguring actual, and far more costly, improvements in wages and working conditions.
Thus, it is really not news that Apple and Foxconn are claiming that a transformation is underway, or that they are hiring some new people and officially charging them with labor rights responsibilities. What would be news is if there were solid proof that substantial, broad, and sustained improvements were actually being made in the hours, working conditions, and income of the hundreds of thousands of workers who make Apple products for Foxconn and other producers. The Times story, however, treats the companies’ promises and claims as evidence of progress and gives short shrift to the key empirical question: whether that corporate rhetoric is being matched by fundamental changes in labor practices and working conditions. The few changes alluded to, but not detailed, in the Times story do little to answer that question.
Indeed, to the extent that the reporters make any broad, substantive assessment of the degree of progress achieved, their conclusion is negative. In the article’s final section (“Change is Hard”), the authors imply that the examples of improvements they cite earlier in the piece have been isolated and are not, as of yet, extended to most workers. The article states: “[T]he reforms enjoyed by employees like Ms. Pu — who received the new chair — have not spread quickly.”
At the same time there are reasons why this time could be different, and why widespread reforms could occur. There has never been so much high-profile information on the conditions faced by Apple’s factory workers, thanks in part to the Times, and thus the pressure on Apple to reform has never been greater. Apple itself, through the expansion of its internal resources dedicated to improving these conditions and to some degree by the nature of their reform statements, appears to be more supportive of reforms than before. Also, there have been some positive changes in Foxconn operations. In combination, these factors may lead to the major, necessary changes. But such fundamental changes are more likely to occur if Apple is held accountable, and is not given undue credit for superficial reforms. The time to praise Apple is when broad and meaningful improvements have been achieved, not merely promised.
1. Actual percentages are shown on a graph and so it is hard to precisely assess them.