Still Polishing Apple: Second FLA report misleads on labor rights progress
Read in isolation, the second verification assessment by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) of remediation steps at three Foxconn factories making Apple products might lead one to think that essentially all labor rights violations have been addressed. The FLA’s report, for instance, features the claim that Foxconn has already completed “98.3 percent” of the necessary steps to correct the problems at its factories. But while some of the steps taken – such as reducing work weeks to below 60 hours and certain safety and health improvements – do represent progress, the overall score given by the FLA as well as the accompanying rosy language about reforms are fundamentally deceptive. Consider:
The FLA ignores crucial reforms promised by Apple and Foxconn, including increasing wages enough to offset reductions in work hours and providing back pay for uncompensated work time. On March 29, 2012, the FLA described the basic remedial actions to be undertaken by Foxconn and Apple by July 2013. Paragraph five of this announcement contained the promise that Foxconn would increase compensation enough to offset any reduction in overtime hours. Paragraph six contained the promise that Foxconn and Apple would provide retroactive pay for the many circumstances in which workers had not been compensated for all their overtime hours. Paragraph seven of the March 2012 announcement said a study would be undertaken to determine the amount of compensation necessary to provide for basic needs; according to the FLA’s own survey, 64 percent 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 important promises; indeed, its second report does not mention them at all. When it comes to these promises, failing grades currently appear more appropriate, contrasting sharply with the FLA’s “98.3 percent” score.
The FLA continues to treat half-measures as full remedies. Our analysis of the first FLA verification report found that the organization frequently gave Foxconn full credit for partial reforms. For example, the FLA reported that the illegal practice of not compensating some workers for up to 30 minutes of overtime per day had been fully corrected. In fact, Foxconn merely reduced the amount of uncompensated overtime from 30 minutes to 15.
The second FLA verification report repeats this pattern. In particular, it is especially misleading that the FLA treats changes in the composition of union leadership committees as full remedies when they are potentially meaningless. The FLA touts significant progress in the proportion of union committees that actually consist of workers as opposed to managers (in January 2013, 39 percent workers/61 percent managers in the Guanlan factory – up from zero worker representation in June 2012; 41 percent in the Longhua facility – up from 10 percent; and 29.5 percent in the Chengdu factory – up 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. A new analysis by SACOM raises plausible concerns that sham unions may be the outcome.
Overtime hours still fail to comply with Chinese law. The FLA finds that in most cases workers at the three Foxconn factories no longer have to work more than 60 hours per week. Work weeks of 60 hours, however, are still in violation of Chinese law, as the FLA acknowledges. The FLA has said it will not judge the factories against the actual legal standard of about 49 hours per week until July 1, 2013; it is far from clear that this standard will be achieved by then and, as in prior reports, the FLA places undue emphasis on the artificial threshold of 60 hours.
Other reports and Apple’s own audits suggest that whatever progress has been made at the three factories examined by the FLA has not been replicated throughout Apple’s supply chain, including at other Foxconn factories. Take the potent issue of abusive student internships. The FLA says such abuse has ended at the three factories studied, but does not address troubling reports of continued abuse of interns at other factories that supply Apple. For example, a September 6, 2012, story in the Shanghai Daily found “Thousands of students in an east China city [were] being forced to work at a Foxconn plant [producing the iPhone 5] after classes were suspended at the beginning of the new semester.”
In another example of progress perhaps occurring only at the three Foxconn factories receiving the most scrutiny, a September 2012 SACOM investigation of Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factories, which were not examined by the FLA, found that as iPhone production reached peak levels, overtime hours on some iPhone production lines sometimes reached 100 hours per month. This same SACOM investigation found that most workers were not receiving the ergonomic breaks the FLA’s first verification report said were being provided. (Foxconn and Apple had promised two daily ergonomic breaks for workers, a major issue given the nature of the work.) An undercover documentary that aired on France’s public television network in December 2012 also found workers at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factories making the iPhone 5 faced harsh living and working conditions, such as residing in unfinished dorms without electricity or running water and forced student internships.
Further, the data in Apple’s recent report on its entire supply chain indicate limited and choppy progress on labor rights issues, with serious violations far too common. Our recent analysis of the report noted that “in more than 1 in 4 cases (28 percent), Apple itself finds that the practices of its suppliers are not in compliance with its wage and benefit standards. In nearly 4 in 10 cases (38 percent), supplier practices are not in compliance with juvenile protection standards. In more than 4 in 10 cases (41 percent), supplier practices fail to comply with ergonomic standards.” Of note, the three factories examined by the FLA include 178,000 workers, while Apple says there are more than one million workers in its supply chain.
The FLA’s second interim report paints a misleading picture of progress on the working conditions experienced by the workers in Apple’s supply chain. The FLA report creates the impression that nearly all necessary reforms have already been implemented. However, a closer analysis indicates that important promised remedies have been dropped; that what the FLA characterizes as full remediation in some areas is actually partial progress or worse; that the work hours at the three factories examined are still far out of compliance with Chinese law; that evidence contrary to the FLA findings has been ignored, including evidence that reforms at the investigated factories have not been matched by reforms at other factories making Apple products; and that Apple’s own recent report portrays widespread labor rights violations throughout its supply chain.
*For more information on the working conditions at Apple suppliers in China, see www.AppleLabor.com