Silicon Sweatshops: Disposable workforce

[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 one ear and out the other. Wintek wants Apple's orders, so of course they would say 'OK' to everything."

"Apple also has some responsibility," said Liu, as the others nodded. "Apple has no idea they have such a badly managed company making their products."

"If Apple sees a company has problems, but still gives them orders, then Apple has a problem too, doesn't it?" added Chen.

Months of protest

After the layoffs last year, about 60 of the laid-off workers and labor activists launched protests. The company agreed to rehire pregnant workers and some long-time employees (12 years or more at the firm), the former workers said. That didn't satisfy the remaining laid-off workers.

So they and activists took their grievances directly to Apple, with a protest outside the U.S. firm's Taipei offices in late May.

Four months later, organizers said there was some progress on getting overtime pay after the company got bad publicity.

"After we went to protest at Apple, it gave Wintek a lot of pressure, not just from Apple, but from other customers, like Nokia," said Chu Wei-li, secretary-general of the Taipei-based National Federation of Independent Trade Unions, in an interview at a Taipei coffee shop in September. "Their customers got a bit nervous."

About half of the 60 who protested returned to jobs at Wintek, the former workers and activists said. The company offered the other 30 temporary or "dispatch" work, at $3 an hour or $30 for a day. They rejected this, saying the salary was too low, with no guarantee of steady work.

Meanwhile, at another Wintek plant in northern Taiwan, workers formed perhaps the island's first union at a high-tech firm. A union member who asked only to be identified by her family name, Chiu, said they organized in August after work conditions had gotten out of hand.

"The company laid off a lot of people because of last year's financial tsunami (a popular term here for the global recession)," said Chiu. "Conditions got worse and worse. One person was doing two or three people's work. We all felt bitter. Our salary was so small, but there was so much work."

Chiu said the workers have had some difficulties forming the union, because "when people hear the word union, they get scared." She said the union has only had a minor impact so far — workers are still owed back pay for several holidays, for example — and she didn't want to reveal how many union members there were because they might lose bargaining leverage.

Chiu said she'd only very recently heard about Apple's "code of conduct," while doing her own surfing on the internet.

No “material” issue

Neither Wintek nor Apple would confirm their business relationship, citing confidentiality. Nokia confirmed that Wintek is one its suppliers. Motorola declined to comment.

Wintek declined to respond to any of the specific allegations made by former and current workers. "We have communication with these employees, when they raise any issues, we will communicate with them," said Wintek Vice President James Chen. "Currently we keep this dialogue smoothly, so we don't think there's any material pending issue."

Apple also declined to respond to any specific allegations made by workers. Spokesperson Jill Tan referred GlobalPost back to the company's latest report on its auditing activity. She also pointed to Apple's programs on workers' rights training.

Chu, the trade unionist, said Wintek insisted to him that the situation has improved, while there's been "absolutely no response" from Apple on the workers' complaints. Chu hopes that U.S. labor unions will show solidarity and launch their own actions against Apple. But he's not optimistic.

Meanwhile, Wintek slapped him and two other activists with a defamation suit, he said.

"We think that Apple and Wintek's attitude is 'hen zaogao,'" said Chu, using a phrase that loosely translates as "messed up." "Apple is such a high-quality brand, with very good products. But they should pay more attention to the labor exploitation problem. They make so much money because of these workers."

Shaking his head, Chu said: "Apple has ignored its responsibility."

[Next in the series: The China Connection. How a dream job at an electronics firm often turns to a nightmare for some Chinese workers.]

Silicon Sweatshops: The series

Special Report: Silicon Sweatshops

Shattered dreams

Disposable workforce

The China connection

A promising model