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Workers complained for weeks about dust that led to deadly explosion.
BEIJING, China – Despite hints that electronics giant Foxconn would scrap the mega-factory model besieged by problems in southern China, the company is creating a new city in Chengdu, where 500,000 workers may be on staff by next year.
Workers and labor rights advocates say Foxconn’s colossal new factory in Sichuan province, which makes the iPad2, has been plagued with safety problems for months. The factory, which already employs nearly 100,000 workers, has come under scrutiny for working conditions since it opened. Concerns have heightened following the deaths of three employees a week ago in an industrial explosion and the reported suicide of a factory worker Thursday morning.
Employees of the Chengdu Foxconn plant told GlobalPost they’ve had problems since starting at the factory, but recruiters and company managers working with the local government are putting on a hard sell to get workers. New employees say the government has paid cash bonuses of between $12-200 for signing up with Foxconn, while the company has promised high-paid overtime hours. Some of the promises have not materialized; others have not made up for bad dorms, long hours and too little sleep.
Workers agreed to speak on condition that their first names not be used, as they fear losing their jobs or other retribution for talking about working conditions. One, Ms. Li, 26, came to the factory three months ago and was disappointed from the very first day. The government recruited Foxconn workers in her hometown, so Li thought the job would be safe and working conditions decent.
On the first day, she said, a busload of workers set out for Chengdu, skipping breakfast and lunch, only to arrive at Foxconn’s site at 2 p.m., dumped unceremoniously on the side of the road with no further instructions. The workers finally got dinner at around 6 p.m., then spent the evening wondering where to stay. Foxconn and other Chinese factories typically provide dorm rooms for a fee for employees, but this group had nowhere to go that first night, setting the stage for weeks of uncertainty and disorganization.
“Many were very upset and start to call their families or relatives in Chengdu, but the factory is far away from downtown. It wasn’t easy to find a taxi and many people, including me, started to cry,” she recalls. “My family encouraged me to stay and see how the work would be.”
When they finally got dorms, they had only portable toilets, and no water to wash their hands. Three months later, Li still wants to leave Foxconn. The hours, the pay and the work have been worse than she expected. And there’s the omnipresent dust.
The Hong Kong-based labor group Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has been warning for weeks about that dust, now linked to the factory’s May 20 explosion that killed three works and at least 15 more.
In a report on Foxconn in mid-May, SACOM said it was deeply concerned about conditions in Chengdu.
“Workers do not have adequate training on usage of chemicals and do not have regular on-post health examinations,” the group wrote. “A number of interviewees even complain they suffer from (allergies), but the management does not probe into the adverse health impacts of workers. Workers also highlight the problem of poor ventilation and inadequate personal protective equipment.”
SACOM has released a two-month-old video from inside the factory, where workers who polish iPad cases are covered in potentially dangerous dust. Dust from the polishing operations caused the deadly explosion a week ago and Foxconn says it has suspended similar polishing operations at all its China facilities pending a safety review.
SACOM says it believes the dust-related explosion could have been avoided if the factory had complied with local laws on work safety and implemented a corrective action plan to fix the problem. SACOM said the company cannot claim ignorance of the dust problem, as it was pointed out months ago.
Factory workers certainly knew about the dust, but were unaware of its potential danger. Li says she’s had a sore throat from the dust since starting work in February. Her coworker, a 24-year-old from the same town, said the factory environment is bad.
“The air inside the workshop is not good, it stinks,” she said. “Ninety percent of the workers in the factory seem to have respiratory infections.”
Despite serious problems from the very start, Foxconn does not seem to be scaling back its plans for Chengdu. The company, which produces electronics for the world’s largest companies and makes a large share of Apple’s gadgets in China, is working to meet ever-growing demand while seizing on China’s incentives for tech companies to invest in the country’s interior.
Neither Foxconn nor Apple could be reached for comment on this story. Both have expressed condolences after the accident, but as with other similar situations in China, there’s been no free flow of information about the incidents or pending investigations. Even the state-run Xinhua news agency was violently blocked while trying to report on the explosion.
For several workers, the salary isn’t worth the risk and uncertainty.
“Of course workers complain; many people say they don’t want to work in the factory anymore,” Li said. “I thought about quitting and told my family, but my mother hoped I could persist. If I left too early, I will look like a runner.”
“My neighbors (back home) convinced my mother about this, because they think the factory is okay,” she said. “They learned that from government.”