Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A 15-year old worker dies of pneumonia at Pegatron! Was it preventable?

China Labor Watch and the New York Times reported this past December 11th on another death at Pegatron’s Shanghai plant (an Apple Corporation contracted supplier of the new iPhone 5C) that employs 100,000 Chinese workers (1,3).

On October 9th Shi Zhaokun, a 15-year-old Chinese laborer, checked himself into a hospital and passed away shortly thereafter of pneumonia. Shi had been hired using his cousin’s identity card that stated he was 20 (1, 3). The legal working age in China is 16. Documents provided from his family show he had worked 79 hours in his first week, 77 in his second and 75 in his third, all in violation of Chinese law (and Apple’s supplier responsibility commitment) prohibiting more than 60 hour work weeks. In his only month at Pegatron Shi worked nearly 280 hours, often 12 hours a day, six days a week (2, 3).

Pegatron claims his death cannot be attributed to unhealthy working conditions within the plant, yet China Labor Watch reports that there have been at least four other similar deaths of young people at the Shanghai plant in recent months (1, 2). Moreover, Pegatron had declared the youth healthy in a pre-employment physical only a month before his passing making it unlikely that a precondition accounted for his pneumonia. Alternatively, the screening exam was faulty and a sick person was hired. Either way, something is amiss (1, 2).

Apple sent its own team of medical professionals to assess the situation and they agreed in a statement to Reuters that Shi died of pneumonia and that there was nothing in the factory that could have caused the illness (4). We concur that the contraction of pneumonia from any one physical ‘place’ or hazardous ‘material’ in the factory is unlikely, but find it unsettling that there’s been no mention of what the physical strain of a 70+ hour work week for many weeks does to a young person’s immune system. We believe this added strain, if not the cause of Shi’s illness, was likely a contributing factor to the development and severity of his illness.

If this seems unlikely to you, be aware that there is an emerging body of research demonstrating a relationship between work stress, long work hours and impaired health and immune system deterioration (5, 6). Combine this with over-crowded living conditions and possible exposure to someone with pneumonia – is it really a surprise that he got sick? No it’s not, but it is surprising that he died. How was it that Shi’s illness could have gone untreated? Are there many unreported cases of pneumonia in this factory? What does it say about the quality of the medical surveillance of these tens of thousands of working people that this 15-year-old could get sick and die virtually unnoticed?

Li Qiang, who runs China Labor Watch  says, “Considering the sudden deaths of five people and the similar reason of the deaths, we believe there should be some relations between the tragedy and the working conditions in the factory,” (2). We concur.

5. McEWEN, B. S. (1998), Stress, Adaptation, and Disease: Allostasis and Allostatic Load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 840: 33–44. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1998.tb09546.x
6. The Workplace and Cardiovascular Disease, Schnall et al, Hanley & Belfus, Inc. Occup Med 15(1), 2000 http://unhealthywork.org/category/theworkplaceandcvd/

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Apple CEO Tim Cook supports rights for U.S. workers, but what about workers in it's supply chain?

Early last week Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Corporation wrote that workplace equality is “good for business,” in a show of his and the company’s support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) - a landmark civil rights legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees (LGBT) in the workplace - which was approved last Thursday in a landmark decision by the Senate (1,2). Apple’s own corporate policy prohibits discriminatory hiring practices against its LGBT effectively giving them more protection than they currently receive under Federal law (4).

Cook wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in the Washington Post,

            “At Apple, we try to make sure people understand that they don't have to check their identity at the door. We're committed to creating a safe and welcoming workplace for all employees, regardless of their race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation…

            Those who have suffered discrimination have paid the greatest price for this lack of legal protection. But ultimately we all pay a price. If our coworkers cannot be themselves in the workplace, they certainly cannot be their best selves. When that happens, we undermine people's potential and deny ourselves and our society the full benefits of those individuals' talents.

            So long as the law remains silent on the workplace rights of gay and lesbian Americans, we as a nation are effectively consenting to discrimination against them. Congress should seize the opportunity to strike a blow against such intolerance by approving the Employment Nondiscrimination Act” (3,4,5).

President Obama also wrote in support of the bill, pointing out the importance of equality and non-discrimination in the workplace and emphasizing the fact that the majority of Fortune 500 companies and small businesses already have nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBT employees saying,

            “These companies know that it's both the right thing to do and makes good economic sense. They want to attract and retain the best workers, and discrimination makes it harder to do that. …

            If we want to create more jobs and economic growth and keep our country competitive in the global economy, we need everyone working hard, contributing   their ideas, and putting their abilities to use doing what they do best. We need to harness the creativity and talents of every American" (6).

Though getting through Senate was a major success, ENDA still faces considerable opposition as by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and the Republican-controlled House (3).

The passing of ENDA would be a great and long sought after win for all those who support equality in the workforce and it our personal opinion that it is great that Apple supports this legislation. But dear reader, it’s hard for us to ignore the fact that Apple remains an integral part of a network of overseas companies (e.g, Foxconn and others ) that highly exploit workers whose socioeconomic status renders them vulnerable. Exploiting this vulnerability of its overseas workforce is a major contributing factor to the success and profitability of Apple corporation. If equality for all is truly what Apple is interested in, it should include ensuring that less privileged workers in the Apple supply chain are provided with a living wage and decent working conditions. What will stockholders think of this idea?  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Apple Supplier Pegatron Investigated for Abusive Labor Practices

Though Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Code of Conduct is one of the best in the technology industry, it still is having problems in arranging production of Apple products by companies   that do not benefit from the exploitation of workers by the violation of Chinese labor laws. This is evident in Apple’s recent decision to contract Pegatron, a rapidly growing Chinese company to produce iPhones, Apple computers and iPad parts. In response to these new production demands from Apple, Pegatron has grown from a workforce of approximately 50,000 in March to 70,000 workers today. (2,3).

The rapid growth at Pegatron has drawn the attention of China Labor Watch (CLW), a labor watchdog group whose dedication to Chinese worker’s rights and scrutiny of Chinese production methods has led to the identification of  many corporate violations of labor rights. Most recently, from March to July of 2013, CLW investigators went undercover inside Pegatron, and conducted approximately 200 interviews with workers outside of three Pegatron plants (1).

CLW reports finding 86 labor rights violations, including 36 legal violations and 50 ethical violations at these three Pegatron factories. Many of these violations are inconsistent with Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct (7). These violations were occurring at the same time Apple claimed it’s suppliers have achieved 99 percent compliance with it’s 60-hour workweek rule (the legal workweek limit in China is 49 hours). However, CLW reports the average workweeks at the three factories investigated are approximately, 66, 67 and 69 hours (1,3). Their finding flatly contradicts Apple’s June 2013 Supplier Responsibility paper that indicates a 46-hour workweek average for Pegatron employees (2,3,4). CLW also found that Pegatron’s Shanghai workers were forced to sign forms falsifying the number of overtime hours worked.

Other violations noted by CLW in their report include several forms of dispatch labor abuse (see earlier blog here on dispatch labor). Recent examples at Pegatron include withholding worker IDs so that Pegatron employees are unable to work elsewhere because they lack proper identification and recruiting companies withholding pay or fining workers for not working enough as well as not providing recruits with mandatory health insurance. Also noted by CLW is hiring discrimination, women’s rights violations, underage labor, contract violations, insufficient worker training, insufficient wages, poor working conditions (e.g., employees being made to stand for 10-11 hours at a time, employees provided gloves that do not sufficiently protect them from the materials used to create metal backplates for the iPad), poor living conditions (e.g., 30-minute waits to enter their production facility, tight living quarters, packed cafeterias and cold showers), difficulty in taking leave, labor health and safety concerns, ineffective grievance channels, abuse by management, and environmental pollution (CLW found metal-cutting fluids were dumped directly into the local sewer systems) (1).

This May, 2013 Apple championed its “success” in achieving positive reforms at Foxconn (another important manufacturing subsidiary) including higher wages and shorter work-weeks (1,3,4). While there can be no doubt that there have been some important positive changes at Foxconn the CLW reports regarding Foxconn (6) have brought the claim of “success” by Apple under renewed scrutiny. Whatever positive changes there have been at Foxconn are clearly lacking at the  three Pegatron factories CLW now reports on.

CLW executive director Li Qiang reports that their, “investigations have shown that labor conditions at Pegatron factories are even worse than those at Foxconn factories” (1).  Apple responded to CLW’s newest report with a statement, saying it is “committed to providing safe and fair working conditions throughout our supply chain” and that it had conducted 15 comprehensive audits at Pegatron facilities since 2007, including surprise audits within the past 18 months. It also confirmed that some labor brokers were withholding worker ID cards and demanded Pegatron “put a stop” to it (2,3,4). In fact, labor conditions at the Pegatron AVY factory are so poor that within a period of two weeks more than 25% (30 out of 110) new recruits quit (3).

Apple also indicated it would investigate the claims outlined in the China Labor Watch report, and take corrective action where needed. We applaud this stand but wonder if these steps will be sufficient as we have already seen that Apple audits are unable to adequately identify the realities of its supplier factories. In allowing its suppliers to continue abusive labor practices, Apple is facilitating unhealthy working conditions. Apple is clearly not living up to its own standards.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Center for Social Epidemiology 25th Anniversary Party

The Center for Social Epidemiology celebrated its 25th Anniversary this past May 17th at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. Over 90 of the Center's family, friends and colleagues were in attendance. Susan Holcomb and Sherry Schnall were honored individually for their unique contributions to the CSE over the years. Dr. Paul Landsbergis was honored for his many contributions to the field of work and health.

Music by Joseph Zimmerman and friends kicked off the evening followed by uproariously funny comedy provided by Alan Havey. These were followed by nostalgic and informative presentations about the history and future directions of the CSE given by Peter Schnall, Marnie Dobson and Paul Landsbergis. The evening came to a close with additional music from Joe, (tango) dancing and further merriment.

Here are links to Peter and Marnie's talks from the evening as well as a link to our website where you can also find pictures of the event. To those of you who attended, we extend our heartfelt thanks for your ongoing support. For those of you who were not able to make it, we hope the attached will give you a greater sense of the evening. You were missed!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

6th ICOH International Conference Panel on Kivimaki Article

6th ICOH International Conference on Work Environment and Cardiovascular Diseases panel on the Kivimaki article, which recently appeared in Lancet in 2012, demonstrating a statistically significant relationship between Job Strain and Cardiovascular Disease in a meta analysis of 116,000 European working people.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Please join us in celebrating the
Center for Social Epidemiology’s 25th Anniversary

May 17, 2013
The Westin Bonaventure Hotel

404 S Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90071

Please join us in the Hollywood Ballroom at 6:30 p.m.
for hors d’oeuvres, wine, entertainment, awards, thoughts
and more.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Foxconn to Hold “Union Elections” – Don’t believe the hype.

Foxconn recently announced workers would be able to vote for union representatives in its factories. The first election, scheduled for this July, is to be held in Foxconn’s Shenzhen complex (1,4). As reported by John Chan in a Feb 13th 2013 article, this is somewhat strange news as Foxconn claims it has already been holding union elections since the creation of the Foxconn Federation of Labour Unions in 2008. Chan argues this Federation of Labor was created in order to extend the policing role of the CCP’s state-controlled unions into the private sector (3,4).

The only substantial change to Foxconn’s 2008 policy reflected in the new announcement seems to be the inclusion of four “junior workers” from each of the 12 manufacturing sections in the Shenzhen complex (1,3,4). Though additional representation may help ease worker/manager relations it does not, given the small numbers of new representatives, do much to ensure collective bargaining rights for workers, nor does it give them any new meaningful leverage in their growing struggle for fair compensation and equal rights.

Independent unions are in fact still illegal in China, as are worker strikes, and the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) (see footnote) is known to frequently and publicly back employers and the CCP regime against the very workers they’re meant to protect. It also boasts ultimate control over all enterprise unions throughout the country including Foxconn’s union (3). In Foxconn, as in other enterprises, senior company managers, often CCP branch secretaries, run the unions rather than workers (4). This fact explains why many observers believe any new union representation in Foxconn plants is either A. largely symbolic and/or B. intended as more of a pressure-release valve for growing tensions between labor and management.

Not only does Foxconn’s recent move not impart any real increase in power or ability to organize for workers outside of its current system, but so far there have also been no additional protections being offered elected representatives (2). China has many laws that provide legal protection for workers, but most of them are selectively enforced, leaving worker representatives vulnerable to retaliation by management and party leaders. Cases have been reported where organizers were not only fired from their company positions but also detained by local police for weeks on end.

Foxconn’s latest efforts are seen by many observers as an attempt to stem worker unrest and avoid further negative news coverage. It may also be an attempt to preserve the CCP party’s power by averting protests, strikes or otherwise politically motivated upheavals by workers in China (1,3,4). It goes without saying that there is a lot of labor unrest and political demonstrations at this time in China (4).


The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was originally founded in 1925, after which it was repealed twice (once by the Chinese Nationalist government and once by Mao Zedong and the Cultural Movement) before being reinstituted once again in 1976. Under the new law independent unions were made illegal, effectively giving the ACFTU a government-controlled/sanctioned monopoly on unions in China – one that doesn’t allow freedom of association, collective bargaining or strikes to occur (4,6). In 2008 Chinese policy changed requiring Chinese, but also foreign owned companies to create their own SCFTU chapters. Though there was some resistance, most notably by Wal-Mart, most companies have chosen to join. This makes sense given the ACFTU provides no real security to workers and cooperation is incentivized with government tax cuts. The addition of these companies has driven membership rates higher and further solidified the SCFTU’s role as a “yellow” union by consistently acting to defend economic growth and the protection of its own political organ over workers rights. Companies that continue to resist are blacklisted and subjected to audits, tax examinations and accusations of labor violations (4,5,6).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Putting Democracy to Work

While we plan to return in later blogs to the Mondragon Cooperative, we'd like to begin to address American worker cooperatives! We will examine what potential they might have to help eleviate rapidly deteriorating working conditions of the American working class, what obstacles they face and which American cooperatives are surviving in the current economic climate and why. 

Below is a video clip of Shift Change - a new documentary on worker cooperatives at home and abroad. It includes footage taken of Mondragon workers as well as several U.S. cooperatives we might choose to cover in blogs to come.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Mondragon Corporation: Criticisms - Part 3 of 3

By Peter Schnall and Erin Wigger

In our first two blogs we have presented Mondragon’s business structure and corporate values with an emphasis on those aspects we find particularly important in vouchsafing the health and safety of its workers. Here, we’d like to address a few problems with the Mondragon experience as a “worker cooperative” corporation as it has undergone expansion and evolution over the past 30 years.

Expansion of the company:

By the mid-1980s it had become apparent to Mondragon’s that many of its products were in direct competition with other multinational companies. Since retooling their company to make other products would be difficult and costly, it was decided that the company would instead adapt to current global practices rather than dramatically change their own products (2,5). This meant, for example, that Mondragon would embrace expansion abroad,

Erosion of “worker collective” values:

Mondragon opened new plants in Mexico, Morocco, Egypt, Argentina, Thailand and China to name a few and, while Modragon insists it tries to ensure good working conditions in its international plants, its international workforce have not been offered member-ownership. Even within Spain, Mondragon-owned popular Spanish food chain Eroski, did not offer its 40,000 employees a chance to become worker-owners until 2009 (7, 5, 9, 2). This resulted in a loosening of Mondragon’s grip on its own stated values as a worker-owned cooperative.

Today, roughly one-third of Mondragón workers are nonmembers out of 256 companies. This exceeds the original Mondragón commitment to never employ more than 10% nonmembers.

“Temporary” labor and gender inequality:

Gender equality in their hiring practices is also an issue. As with other globally competitive capitalist corporations we’ve seen (e.g.. Foxconn) when Mondragon experiences an increase in demand from the marketplace they draw from a pool of temporary workers to fill the labor gap. Temporary hires at Mondragon are overwhelmingly female, thus many lower positions within the company are being occupied by females while blue-collar jobs at Mondragon’s coops remain largely male (10). Temporary female workers often receive less pay and, by definition, have less job security.  This social stratification of workers by gender is the anti-thesis of workplace democracy.


In the mid-1960s alternative approaches (in the form of Scandinavian work groups) were introduced to Ulgor workers in an effort to replace the rote and alienating line work Taylorism had brought. The recession of the 1980s, however, created a shift away from alternative manufacturing processes as the coops began to be more concerned with their bottom line (11). By the early 1990s several lean production practices had been accepted, including just-in-time inventory along with other manufacturing practices to increase productivity such as shift work (10). It’s hard to imagine in a company where workers have a share in power the actual organization of work within its factories has been left basically untouched. These practices bring into question the ability of Mondragon to support workplace democracy and whether all member-owners are truly active in decision-making within the company. (9,5,10).


Mondragon is doing, many things right as we discussed in our previous two blogs re the company. However, given their commitment to the goals of worker participation and improved worker health, one would think they would extend offers of membership to their foreign employees, take a stand on gender inequality (possibly through outreach through their educational branch) and do more to encourage democracy and participation on the work floor.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Changes at Foxconn may not be sufficient

By Peter Schnall and Erin Wigger

As reported recently in the New York Times, signs of change can be seen in Foxconn’s factories. Protective foam has been placed on low stairwell ceilings inside factories and automatic shut-off devices have been added to many machines. Some workers have also received more comfortable chairs (1,2). Hourly wages are reportedly also up and hours of work per week are down. All this is supposedly good news for workers at Foxconn.

In fact, according to the Times, Foxconn has already carried out more than 280 of 360 changes recommended by the Fair Labor Association (FLA ref 2).

You might remember from our previous blogs, Foxconn and Apple both made numerous commitments to change working conditions at the plants after meeting with the Fair Labor Association (FLA), whose report  (released in March of 2012) identified numerous major problems at Foxconn including very long work hours (up to 80 hours per week), excessive and often unpaid overtime, safety violations as well as inhumane housing conditions.

Foxconn announced that by July 2013, no employee would be allowed to work more than an average of 49 hours a week (the limit set by Chinese law) and promised to increase wages so employees’ total pay would not decline when overtime hours are cut. Wages were raised for some workers in Shenzhen by 16 to 25 percent (6,7). However, despite the higher hourly wages, Foxconn’s partial compliance with Chinese weekly work limits has resulted in an average overall decrease in salaries for many workers leading to complaints by many who need the extra hours and the income to provide for their families. As we were completing this article China Labor Watch reported that workers at Foxconn Group’s Xin Hai Yang Precision Factory had gone on strike January 11th to protest low wages. (see ref 11)

The story from the NY Times also reports that other reforms are being implemented by Foxconn in areas like health and safety, environmental protection, compensation, grievance systems, workplace conduct and discipline, and termination and retrenchment policy though it’s unclear in the article exactly what changes are being made (2).

Even with these reforms, chronic problems remain at the plant. Envoyé Spécial, a 60 Minutes-like program from a public TV station in France, went undercover at the Zhengzhou iPhone 5 Foxconn factory and reported several days ago that it had found workers living in dormitories still under construction without electricity or running water. Reporters also met with lower-paid student workers who claimed they were required to continue working at the factory in fear of losing their diplomas as well as workers who claimed that much of their upgraded $290 monthly salary was still being absorbed by the company through housing, insurance and food (3,5).

Just this past September, (six months after Foxconn agreed to a Fair Labor Association request for new internship rules), two worker advocacy groups found that students in nonmanufacturing courses were being improperly forced to work at a Foxconn plant in north central China (4). One student studying preschool education said she was prohibited from quitting her internship and was compelled to work night shifts. Afterward, Mr. Gou of Foxconn issued apologies to wronged interns and the responsible official was fired (1).

Earlier in the year reports surfaced from Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) finding that the year's multiple Apple product launches put added pressure on the factories, allegedly pushing workers into overtime and forcing them to endure "humiliating" disciplinary action, including the writing and reading of confession letters, and manual labor duties like toilet cleaning.

This climaxed in early October when a riot broke out at the Chengdu, China plant involving thousands of workers after a clash with security staff. Dozens of Foxconn employees were arrested.  Only 12 days later, 3,000 to 4,000 workers at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant walked off the job when fights broke out between quality control inspectors and line workers on the iPhone 5 (8,9).

Though Foxconn has reportedly been training managers to treat employees less brusquely, foremen still use profanity and intimidation, workers say. “The managers speak in a manner that often feels like a threat,” said Mou Kezhang, who works in iPad quality assurance at the Foxconn factory in Chengdu (1). Clearly, the pressure on Foxconn for increased production of various Apple components has led to oppressive management practices and shortcuts to increase production.  

The important issue of poor psychosocial work environment at the plants and the role work stressors play in the negative health outcomes of workers continues to be ignored.  Work stressors include; work intensity and speed-up, long work hours (this appears to have been partially addressed), organizational justice, effort-reward imbalance, low social support, job strain and threat-avoidant vigilance, to name a few. Recent research publications from China indicate that job strain and effort-reward imbalance may play important roles in the development of musculoskeletal disorders and also physical injuries among chinese workers (10,11). The FLA as well as watchdog groups such as China Labor Watch have ignored these psychosocial factors or aren’t aware of their importance. Nor has anyone examined the impact of these psychosocial stressors on the negative psychological health outcomes plaguing this population of workers - observable by the significant number of suicides the plant has experienced over the last few years. These issues need to addressed along with work hours and wages for work life at Foxconn to significantly improve. Without these changes we can expect continued and andd increasing negative health outcomes.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Work stress linked to heart attack risk in older men


Here (inserted below) is a short article from Personnel Today (January 2013) which discusses the impact of job strain on the cardiovascular health of older male workers. 

Work stress linked to heart attack risk in older men

Older men with stressful jobs and little power to make decisions are more likely to suffer with heart disease than their peers with less job strain, according to a study published in Occupational Medicine, the journal of the Society of Occupational Medicine.

The researchers from University College Cork found that older male workers who had had a heart attack or had unstable angina were four times as likely to have high job strain as those that did not.

Job strain, or the combination of high job demands and low control at work, has long been associated with coronary heart disease, but this latest research looked specifically at its effects in the older workforce.

Intriguingly, it found there was a clear difference between younger and older workers - the association was not found in younger people.

Lead author Vera McCarthy said: "This study is important as it provides information on older workers necessary to inform policy-makers, clinicians, OH physicians and employers."

The society argued that as the UK's working population ages, employers will need to make work more attractive and feasible for older workers, implementing changes that enable them to work up to and beyond state pension age.

To this end, investing in OH services will become increasingly important in keeping people economically active and helping to ensure that older workers remain healthy and fit, it added.

"Employers need to ensure that they are looking after the health of their older employees, making the necessary adjustments and being flexible about the jobs they do and their working practices," said society president Dr Richard Heron.