By Ellen Rosskam, Ph.D., MPH, Center for Social Epidemiology’s European Associate
The conditions described by workers at Foxconn are, unfortunately, not an isolated case. Foxconn just happens to be in the limelight right now because of recently reported worker deaths and its connection with Apple, which stands solidly behind its values of corporate social responsibility. Apple is in a similar press spotlight. Nike got the same kind of bad publicity when descriptions of its Asian sweatshops hit the Western press. Improvements in some Nike manufacturing plants were due largely to student-led movements across the USA, which threatened sales. For a vivid picture of work conditions typical in China’s manufacturing factories, watch the documentary film “China Blue.” The film documents, as an example, workers in textile manufacturing companies in China using clothespins to keep their eyes open while working, because of extreme sleep deprivation from working 18 hours/day (8 a.m. until 2 a.m.), 7 days/week. Those workers earn $0.06 (six cents) an hour, in other words $1.08/day, or $7.56/week. Workers at Foxconn on the other hand, earn $22/week - 3 times more than workers in textile factories.
More skills are required to work in tech manufacturing as compared to other industrial sectors (such as textile manufacturing) so wages will not be the same. Therefore, the focus should not be simply on wages, but the overall working conditions. While work conditions and wages are poor at Foxconn, the textile sector is even worse than the tech sector, and other manufacturing sectors are equally bad - they just haven’t been in the western press as much as Foxconn, Apple, and Nike.
It’s a positive sign that Foxconn made some response to recent worker protests and several suicides at some of their manufacturing plants (e.g. wage increase, payoffs to quit, counselors, introducing stress management programs, building safety netting around the factory.) Even so, not all of the promises made to workers were kept by the company and, the reality is that Foxconn’s responses just barely begin to deal with the working conditions in these factories.
No occupational health and safety or epidemiological data are available to assess what’s happening to workers in these plants, and no one knows what happens to sick or injured workers when they leave a company. If Apple is serious about improving working conditions in its Chinese suppliers’ factories, then its first step should be to ensure that occupational health data is collected.
Hopefully the information, training, and interventions being introduced in some of the plants will be based on state of the art knowledge and practice. For example, stress management programs being implemented by Foxconn aim to teach individual workers skills to cope with existing conditions. Unfortunately, these programs do not aim to change the causes of the stress, which includes excessively long work hours. Moreover, individual stress management programs have been demonstrated to yield more positive results when accompanied by structural changes in the organization of work.
If Management asks “where to begin?” the easiest starting point is to ask workers their priorities for change. Easy-to-use, low-cost tools and solutions exist, e.g. Barefoot Research: A Workers’ manual for organizing on work security and Ergonomic checkpoints: Practical and easy-to-implement solutions for improving safety, health and working conditions.
China needs, as a country, an occupational health system capable of monitoring the working conditions of its people. In addition, they need a solid social protection system that is proactive and prevention oriented. This system needs to be able to provide for the needs of workers who are no longer capable of performing in China’s modern workplaces.
 Barefoot Research: A Workers’ manual for organising on work security, M. Keith, J.Brophy, P. Kirby, E. Rosskam, ILO (Geneva), 2002 -- Mandarin and Cantonese versions are available from the Hong Kong Workers’ Health Center,
 Ergonomic checkpoints: Practical and easy-to-implement solutions for improving safety, health and working conditions, K. Kogi, I. Kuorinka, et al., ILO (Geneva), 1996 (2nd printing 2011) -- also available in Mandarin.