Editor's note: Silicon Sweatshops is an ongoing GlobalPost investigation into the complex supply chains that produce some of our most precious, high-tech gadgets.
BEIJING, China — Embattled Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics behemoth that makes everything from iPads to laptops for the world’s top tech companies, is accused of serious labor violations and a culture of mistreatment of its workers in China, in a new study by Chinese academics.
The 90-page report, slated for release Tuesday but obtained early by GlobalPost, chronicles a litany of new and serious allegations against the world’s largest electronics manufacturer and calls on China’s top government leadership and trade union to take action to improve working conditions for factory employees. The two-month-long investigation, spearheaded by professors and students at several of China’s top universities, was conducted at 12 Foxconn facilities by 60 academics and two dozen students in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It includes interviews and surveys of nearly 1,800 Foxconn employees.
Foxconn did not respond to several requests by phone and fax for comment on the report, but told official Chinese media that a response was forthcoming. The company, which employs more than 400,000 factory workers in China, has started diversifying its factory locations and building new plants in the wake of problems at Shenzhen.
Among the new complaints, the report highlights alleged over-reliance on and misuse of interns, students and recent graduates who fill the same jobs as entry-level staffers. The company saves money by hiring workers as interns rather than full employees, using third-party employment agencies and avoiding insurance and other benefits required under Chinese labor law, the study said. Still, thousands of interns — who are supposed to be limited to eight hours’ work per day — are expected to work long hours of overtime. In one example, an intern lost more than 20 pounds in a month on the job from stress.
The report said that on some factory floors, interns make up the majority of workers, and that many more are hired during holiday periods when staffers have vacation leave.
Foxconn has been under intense scrutiny already this year for a spate of worker suicides this year at its China facilities — 11 at the company’s two Shenzhen plants. The report said there have been 17 suicide attempts at Foxconn facilities so far this year, with three survivors. Additionally, the study found, Foxconn has not implemented promised pay raises following intense media scrutiny after the suicides, and that critical problems for workers continue unabated.
On another note, the report said violence is common at Foxconn facilities, and that workers are abused and devalued. On average, the survey found that employees work more than double the number of overtime hours allowed each month and are bound to their factory campuses.
“Under the labor and dormitory system, there is great physical, spiritual and spatial repression,” the report charged. “An ordinary worker can easily be forced to the edge of collapse. Many workers used words like ‘cage’ and ‘prison’ to describe Foxconn.”
In the wake of global pressure, the company promised several series of wage hikes, but the report said those have not yet materialized.
The workers quoted in the report described ceaseless overtime, stagnant wages and increasing dorm fees for factory beds. Some workers said they are prohibited from traveling freely, and one said he was beaten for walking on the grass at a factory compound.
“The workers’ legal rights are not protected,” the report said. “They sell their health and even their lives while they are selling their labor.”
In a statement to GlobalPost, the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), which helped coordinate the investigation, said it hoped to spur government and trade union action to protect Foxconn’s workers.
“We support Foxconn victims’ and employees’ right to voice and unionize in their workplaces, and to strive for progressive reforms,” the group said. “By documenting life within Foxconn, we call on our government to reflect upon the low-cost export model that sacrifices the dignity, and lives, of young workers.”
“We further demand Foxconn management and global brand buyers such as Apple, HP and Dell take full responsibility for the human tragedy,” SACOM said. “We believe that consumers and investors around the world should have the right to know about the workers’ conditions behind our iPhones, laptops and music players.”
Jenny Chan, an adviser to SACOM, said the organization is also concerned about the squeeze for low prices from Foxconn’s customers, which include Apple, HP, Sony and the rest of the top names in global electronics. Foxconn is already faced with thin profit margins, she said, and contracting companies share in the responsibility.
“We recommend shared responsibilities of IT brands and Foxconn to enforce international labor standards by ensuring workers at Foxconn and other workplaces a living wage and decent conditions,” said Chan.
In a public letter to Foxconn CEO Terry Guo, the study’s authors pleaded for quick action to improve working conditions.
“Gentlemen love to make a fortune and earn it the right way,” said the letter. “Yet our research … makes us believe Foxconn is accumulating its wealth in immoral ways.”
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