Connect to share and comment

Special Reports

Labor violations are the norm at factories making high-tech gadgets.

Silicon Sweatshops: Disposable workforce

Laid-off Taiwanese workers accuse their firm of violating industry codes even when times were good.

[Editor’s note: Silicon Sweatshops is a five-part investigation of the supply chains that produce many of the world’s most popular technology products, from Apple iPhones, to Nokia cell phones, Dell keyboards and more. The series examines the scope of the problem, including its effects on workers from the Philippines, Taiwan and China. It also looks at a novel factory program that may be a blueprint for solving this perennial industry problem.]

TAICHUNG, Taiwan — When she left work at dawn on Dec. 17 last year, Gao Yun-sheng, 49, got a rude surprise.

She worked for eleven and a half years at the Wintek factory, which she and eight other current and former employees interviewed by GlobalPost say has supplied Apple, Nokia, Motorola and other electronics brands. Lately, Gao had been working the graveyard shift, making about $720 a month mounting components on circuit boards.

But when she clocked out that morning, her managers had a message for her. "They told me, tomorrow you don't need to come in," said Gao. "I couldn't accept it."

When co-worker Chen Hsiu-zhi, 41, showed up a few hours later to begin the day shift, they told her "you can't come in," she said. She'd also been canned.

Compared with migrant workers from Southeast Asia, Taiwanese workers have it good. They have better salaries, benefits and legal protection.

But that didn't make much difference for Gao, Chen and about 600 other Taiwanese workers at the Wintek factory. Gao and Chen said they were laid off with no warning late last year, when the global economic recession hit. The workers who stayed were forced to take unpaid leave, the two said.

Gao Yun-sheng, 49, worked for eleven and a half years at the Wintek factory before being laid off when the recession hit.
(Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost)

In an interview at a coffee shop in Taichung, Gao, Chen and two other former Wintek workers vented about how the company had treated them. But long before the firings, they said, Wintek was routinely violating requirements of Apple's and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition's codes of conduct. (The EICC is an industry group whose members include most top electronics brands, including Apple, Dell and HP.)

Long hours, fear of organizing

Apple's code prohibits workweeks of more than 60 hours except in "emergency or unusual" situations, and says overtime should be voluntary. The former Wintek workers said employees routinely clocked 65- to 70-hour weeks, and "if you don't cooperate with overtime, they'll deduct money from your salary," said Liu Jie, 42.

Instead of being paid an overtime salary, workers were often given extra paid vacation time and could only take it with the firm's approval, the former workers said.

Apple's code requires a telephone hotline or other anonymous grievance mechanism for workers; Wintek has none, the former workers said. “Our bosses are blind and deaf," said Liu, putting her hand over her eyes then ears.

Apple's code says its suppliers' employees should be able to join workers' associations and bargain collectively. The former workers said even talk of unionizing would put their jobs in jeopardy.

"Before, some people [publicly] brought up forming a union," said Gao. "Two or three days later, they were gone. They'd been fired. So people are afraid of losing their jobs."

The four workers weren't familiar with details of Apple's code of conduct until they were read to them. They said they'd heard from co-workers who had returned to Wintek that the company had warned about careless talk and told employees to say good things about Wintek ahead of an Apple visit early this summer. Such "coaching" is yet another Apple code violation.

"They [Wintek] are cheating Apple," said Gao. "What Apple tells the Wintek bosses goes in