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Silicon Sweatshops: Small signs of progress

Migrant workers at an Apple supplier say conditions have improved. But they're the exception.

Silicon Sweatshops graphic

TANZI, Taiwan — It's just after Sunday morning Mass on an overcast day in in this industrial, non-descript town in central Taiwan.

About 25 women in their 20s and 30s sit on plastic chairs in a meeting room at the back of a Roman Catholic church, dressed in jeans and simple blouses or T-shirts. They're giggling, teasing each other and cracking jokes in Tagalog and English.

They've just listened, along with 400 to 500 other Filipina migrant workers in a packed hall, to a Sunday sermon on forgiveness, loving oneself and rising above one's difficulties in life.

For these women, the difficulties are many. They live hundreds of miles from their husbands and families, sleeping in crowded dorms, to earn money in a strange, foreign land where they have few rights and are routinely exploited — as reported previously in GlobalPost's series "Silicon Sweatshops."

The good news: since that report, conditions have improved for this one small group of Filipina workers at a company supplying Apple and other high-tech brands.

The bad news: it's business as usual for many of the other 370,000 southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan, including those assigned to companies in the supply chain of the world's high-tech giants: exorbitant "placement fees," additional "broker fees" deducted from workers' hard-earned pay; and second-class status.

The workers trade away basic freedoms and rights for the chance to earn better money than they could at home. The story's the same in Japan, South Korea and other wealthy East Asian countries, which increasingly import cheap labor from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere to fill low-end jobs that locals don't want.

A better deal

The 20-some workers at the Taiwan firm Wintek said they had each paid $1,000 to $1,200 in placement, processing and other fees to a Philippines manpower agency to come to Taiwan (Taiwan guidelines supposedly limit such fees to one month's minimum wage, or $540). Then they forked over an additional $45 to $55 per month, or nearly 10 percent of their gross salary, to their Taiwan broker, fees that can add up to $1,800 for each three-year stint abroad and lower their take-home salaries to below minimum wage.

But by March this year, the workers said, Wintek had stopped deducting the monthly "brokers' fee" from their paychecks. Some workers were even reimbursed up to four months of such fees in cash. Brokers gave them back their passports, which until then had been in "safekeeping."

"Please extend to Apple our thanks," one worker said, as other Wintek workers nodded and murmured agreement.

All these changes were made with no explanation from Wintek or the brokers, workers said. They complained that they still hadn't gotten their "chops" — stamps needed for some financial transactions in Taiwan — back from their brokers. There's still no hotline for them to air grievances anonymously.

Nadine Lebrilla. (Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost)

Apple spokesperson Jill Tan declined comment, pointing only to a progress report earlier this year in which the firm highlighted the issue of excessive placement and brokers' fees. The company says it now considers this a "core violation" of its supplier code of conduct. It said its limit for such fees is one month's net wages and said "as a result of our audits and corrective actions, foreign workers had been reimbursed $2.2 million in recruitment fee overcharges."

Wintek spokesman Jay Huang confirmed the changes in a phone interview, but denied that pressure from Apple or any other customer were behind them. "It's not [because of] any pressure from customers," said Huang. "It's because we need to comply with social accountability on workers' rights and benefits. Maybe before, we didn't focus too much on this."

Huang said the changes were part of company-wide measures begun last year to help Wintek earn SA8000 certification (a global "social accountability" standard for corporations developed by Social Accountability International, and in Wintek's case awarded by German certification body TUV, according to Huang). He said Wintek was now paying the monthly Taiwan labor brokers' fees.

Johara Santos, a 28-year-old from Tarlac Province, said she works in a three-woman unit cutting small screens for Apple. She said Wintek officials had not communicated with them about any of the changes, but did warn them that Apple auditors were coming in May. "They told us to clean, and said 'don't talk so much,'" said Santos. "They wanted us to behave."

Another Filipina who gave the name "Lei Ai" works in a four-woman unit making screens she believes are for Apple laptops and iPods. She works on the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. graveyard shift, taking home $315 per month after deductions including "forced savings," which she can only access in an emergency and with her broker's permission.

She said three to five Apple auditors came to Wintek in May for a week, but didn't talk to the workers. She said she doesn't get enough overtime — she wants to make more money — and that recently Apple had cut its orders.

Little recourse

For the Wintek workers, at least there are some small improvements. But these workers seem to be the exception to the rule.

"Apple has responded," said Father Joy Tajonera, a Filipino-American Roman Catholic priest who runs a shelter in Tanzi and provides other services for migrant workers. "But the problem is, a lot of the other companies haven't."