Friday, February 17, 2012

What is wrong with the approach of the Fair Labor Association to Foxconn

The following article "Apple iPad plant conditions better than the norm" was published in the Chicago Tribune on Feb 15, 2012. The article is an interview with Auret van Heerden, a famed South African Labor Activist, who is currently head of the FLA (The Fair Labor Association). The FLA has been asked by CEO Tim Cook of Apple Corporation to investigate possible violations of Apples Fair Labor Practices by Foxconn and other Chinese corporations that have contracted with Apple Corporation to produce iPads and iPhone. At this time, I have no doubt that Auret van Heerden is well meaning and knowledgeable about many aspects of working conditions in China and elsewhere. However, i have serious concerns about his comments as quoted below. I have inserted my thoughts in red after his comments below, which are in black.

Peter L. Schnall
Professor of Medicine, U. of California at Irvine

Apple iPad plant conditions better than the norm - Chicago Tribune 

Working conditions at Chinese manufacturing plants where Apple Inc's iPads and iPhones are made are far better than those at garment factories or other facilities elsewhere in the country, according to the head of a non-profit agency investigating the plants. 

"Far better" is not the same as "good" and certainly is not the same as healthy working conditions.  Yes, electronic assembly plants are clean and well lit. Textile firms don't have these requirements. Anyone who has watched "China Blue," the DVD that documents conditions in a China blue jean manufacturing plant knows that conditions in many Chinese factories are very close to slave labor. 

The Fair Labor Association (FLA) is beginning a study of the working conditions of Apple's top eight suppliers in China, following reports of worker suicides, a plant explosion and slave-like conditions at one of those suppliers, Foxconn Technology Group.

If FLA is just beginning a study of conditions at Foxconn, why is it that the President of the FLA is making broad statements, such as conditions "are far better" before all the facts are in?  There are many aspects of the work environment that are not detectable by observation alone (see comments below).

Auret van Heerden, president of the FLA offered no immediate conclusions on the working conditions, but he noted that boredom and alienation could have contributed to the stress that led some workers to take their own lives.

Well, it is hard to imagine how workers putting in 80-hour work weeks would only be bored. Exhausted maybe. I can understand "alienated" as it very hard to imagine putting in 12 hour workdays - 7 days a week - in a job with few breaks and no opportunity to talk with one's co-workers and not be alienated. In fact, the production line at Foxconn is a classic example of an alienated (cause (someone) to feel isolated or estranged) job. A sincere thank you to Auret van Heerden for acknowledging the possibility that the suicides at Foxconn may be work-related.

In addition to Foxconn, FLA investigators will later visit facilities of Quanta Computer Inc, Pegatron Corp, Wintek Corp and other suppliers, who are notoriously tight-lipped about their operations.After his first visits to Foxconn, van Heerden said, "The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm."

Well, maybe yes, if we are referring to just the physical environment which after all is designed for electronics assembly (sterile, clean, well-lit, etc). But there are other aspects of the job that are physical including standing in one place for 12 hours a day. There are numerous reports of workers developing swollen legs after standing for many hours without much movement. Also there are reports of numerous repetitive motion injuries (from repeating the same task again and again) as well as burns from dealing with solder and hot electronic parts. 

He spent the past several days visiting Foxconn plants to prepare for the study. "I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory," he said. "So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory. It's more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps."

Yes, Foxconn is not a textile plant in China, so IT may not be as hellish? But how can he know whether workers are suffering from burnout?  This is an internal emotional state assessed by a questionnaire - usually the MBI (Maslach Burnout Inventory). You cannot just look at someone and know if they are anxious, depressed or burnt out. You have to ask them.

He noted that the organization has been dealing with suicides in Chinese factories since the 1990s. So young people are committing suicide in plants all over China not just at Foxconn. This undermines the argument made by a number of apologists for Apple that the prevalence of suicides at Foxconn is no different than the population as a whole. This argument ignores the clustering of cases among young people. It does make sense that young people coming from farms or being forced off farms, confronted with horrendous working conditions (despite higher earnings than they had previously) might develop despair, especially if they lose hope that conditions will improve in the future.

"You have lot of young people, coming from rural areas, away from families for the first time," he said. "They're taken from a rural into an industrial lifestyle, often quite an intense one, and that's quite a shock to these young workers."And we find that they often need some kind of emotional support, and they can't get it," he added. Factories initially didn't realize those workers needed emotional support."Van Heerden dismissed the notion that his organization might paint a cursory and positive picture of Apple's suppliers.

But he already has been cursory by making comments without collecting all his facts. One thing seems clear to date about FLA and Apple Corporation, they appear to believe that 80-hour work weeks are not extraordinary. (Western countries have struggled for 100 years to arrive at a 35-40 hour workweek). Also neither Auret van Heerden nor Tim Cook have yet evidenced any knowledge of 1) the negative health impact that long work days and work weeks has on health, or 2) awareness of the impact that workplace psychosocial factors such as job strain, effort reward imbalance, social isolation, lack of social support from supervisors and co-workers have on mental and physical well being (see our website "Unhealthy Work" for much more on these noxious workplace exposures).

Companies that join the FLA abide by rigorous commitments, and their interests are balanced by non-governmental organizations and more than 200 universities that sit on the board of the organization with the corporations, he said,FLA evolved from a group originally convened by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1996 with the goal of reducing sweatshop labor around the world. Its board includes executives from sneaker companies Nike and Adidas. "Apple didn't need to join the FLA," he said. "The FLA system is very tough. It involves unannounced visits, complete access, public reporting”.

This is an excellent point but it is incomplete. Surprise visits focus attention on dangerous environments, underage workers, etc but ignores work organization and long work hours, as issues. But still – my hats off to Apple – they are moving in the right direction by asking for outside help.

It is a shame that the “outside help” aren’t more cautious with their statements about the quality of working conditions and we can only hope they are informed about the full range of workplace surveillance tools available to assess working conditions. "If Apple wanted to take the easy way out there were a whole host of options available to them," he added. "The fact that they joined the FLA shows they were really serious about raising their game."


Some 30 FLA staff members are visiting two Foxconn factories in Shenzhen in southern China and one in the central city of Chengdu. Each plant has about 100,000 workers, although not all work on Apple products.Over three weeks, some 35,000 workers will be interviewed about 30 at a time to answer questions anonymously, entering their responses onto Apple iPads.

Why are they using apple iPads? Isn't this potentially intimidating? Will workers not believe that Apple will somehow identify them and use the information provided to punish them?

Questions will include:

* how the workers were hired

* if they were paid a fee

* if they were offered and signed contracts and whether they understood them

* the condition of their dorm rooms and food

* if complaints are acted upon

* their emotional well being

These questions are ok, but they don't go far enough. What about breaks, rest time, social isolation, wages, workers perception of fairness and justice, questions about imbalances between effort and rewards. Promotions, job security, etc. Finally, at least one open ended question so workers can mention something not in already covered. These are the kind of items that any U.S. researcher would want to collect.

The data will be uploaded immediately and consolidated, and an interim report will be made public in early March. The eventual FLA report will identify areas the suppliers need to improve and offer suggestions, van Heerden said, "There might not be a clear policy on hiring, that could lead unwittingly to discrimination against hepatitis B sufferers," he said as an example, "There might not be adequate documentation that could lead to the risk that workers get hired with fake documentation, that underage workers come in . We can recommend very specific actions they can take.

Finally, my colleague Paul Landsbergis writes to me upon reading the above, “The biggest problem with the article is that it assumes that the FLA will make a difference. It has not made much of a difference since it was founded. The only way that working conditions will change is when the workers get the right to organize and collectively bargain. Anything else will be a sham”.

1 comment:

  1. This is an immense number. Originally most were by foreigners, but this has shifted, and now most of these specifications are by residents