Updated 11:28 am ET, Wednesday, September 12
Apple is holding a press event on Wednesday in San Francisco, presumably to unveil its new iPhone 5.
But a world away, in the Chinese electronics assembly factories of Apple supplier partner Foxconn, working conditions are again coming under scrutiny by advocacy groups and press outlets.
A new series of reports, the latest published in the New York Times on Monday, alleges that Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, has been exploiting Chinese student interns from vocational schools to build the iPhone 5 in its Chinese-based factories, effectively taking advantage of “work study”-like programs and paying the interns very little for long hours of potentially dangerous factory work.
Specifically, The Times reported that the founder of China Labor Watch, a workers rights advocacy group, told the newspaper that members of his organization’s staff “had spoken with multiple [Foxconn] workers and students who, as recently as Sunday, said that 10 of 87 workers on an iPhone assembly line were students.”
Further, the students — some of whom are said to be studying unrelated fields such as English and law — were told that they would not be allowed to graduate if they didn’t help fulfill Foxconn orders for the new iPhone 5.
English language Chinese newspaper The Shanghai Daily and the American Vice’s Motherboard blog also reported the practice of “thousands” of students at Chinese vocational schools being required by their instructors to work long hours for little or no pay at Foxconn factories to keep up with the production demand for Apple’s new iPhone 5.
Some teachers allegedly admitted to suspending classes so that their students could spend more time working on the factory floors, according to the reports.
In response to these reports, SumofUs.org, and advocacy organization that has consistently attempted to use online media to pressure Apple into getting Foxconn to reform its practices, released the following statement to the press:
“Apple is hoping the buzz around the iPhone 5’s release will drown out criticism, but as demand for iPhones has increased, so has the demand for faster and cheaper production, and factories churning out phones are also churning out forced unpaid overtime, wage cuts, and hazardous working environments,” said SumOfUs.org Executive Director Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.
The Fair Labor Association, an industry trade group that Apple in February commissioned to investigate prior reports of inhumane working conditions and worker abuse, told The Times that it was “concerned” about recent reports of exploitation at Foxconn factories and would be “following-up” on them.
The Fair Labor Association’s audit of Foxconn and other Apple supplier factories, which are responsible for the assembly of the iPhone and iPad, as well as many other consumer electronics products from other companies around the globe, concluded in March with the findings that Foxconn had indeed violated numerous worker rights and did not have appropriate safety measures in place at its Chinese factories.
Foxconn, the FLA, and Apple all said at that time that Foxconn had agreed to amend its practices and improve working conditions and wages. The FLA in August published a follow-up evaluation on its website that said that Foxconn had “completed all of the 195 actions that were due,” and that “Foxconn took steps to bring its factories into full compliance with Chinese legal limits on working hours by July 2013.”
Neither Foxconn nor Apple responded to request for comment in time for the publication of this article.
In April, after being asked about the reports of interns being asked to work overtime for little or no wages, Foxconn provided TPM the following lengthy statement, admitting no wrongdoing and essentially blaming vocational schools and teachers for funneling young workers into the factories. The Foxconn statement is reprinted below in full:
Foxconn has a short-term internship program that we carry out in cooperation with a number of vocational schools in China. Participants in that program, all of whom are of legal working age in China (16 to 18 years old), represent an average of 2.7 percent of our workforce in China. The internship programs range from three to six months in duration with the average being 3.5 months. Foxconn has very strict policies and practices in place to ensure that no one below the legal working age is ever employed in any capacity in our operations.
While we provide vocational schools with our qualification requirements, it is the schools that recruit the students under the supervision of the relevant local government and the schools also assign teachers to accompany and monitor the students throughout their internship program. In addition to allowing the students to gain relevant industry experience while earning the same industry-competitive compensation as our full-time entry-level workers, this program gives Foxconn an opportunity to identify participants in the internship program who have the potential to be excellent full-time employees should they wish to join our company upon graduation from their vocational school.
The recent audit of three of our facilities in China carried out by the Fair Labor Association confirmed that there were no workers or interns under the legal working age employed in our operations. That audit, however, did find incidents where some participants in the internship program worked overtime hours or worked on the night shift. We have committed to the Fair Labor Association that we will immediately adapt our monitoring of this program to ensure that no program participant is allowed to work overtime or on the night shift. The Fair Labor Association confirmed that students find their participation in this program valuable and that the positions offered by Foxconn were at above-market conditions. In line with this, we are working to ensure that this is complemented by full-compliance with the Fair Labor Association Workplace Code of Conduct. We are confident that future monitoring of our operations by the Fair Labor Association will confirm this compliance.
Apple earlier faced criticism from advocacy groups for not using its position as the world’s wealthiest company and a leading electronics seller to force Foxconn to improve its labor conditions and wages. Foxconn was also criticized for allowing unsafe practices that resulted in an explosion and multiple injuries at one Chinese factory in 2011. At least 18 Chinese factory workers at Foxconn have also committed suicide since 2010, the latest in June. Earlier that month, up to 1,000 Foxconn workers were also involved in a riot near or at a factory in Chengdu, China.
Late updates: New, more detailed reports of the allegedly deplorable working and living conditions at Foxconn’s factories and on-site dormitories have been apparently published by Chinese newspaper The Shanghai Evening Post, according to the China-focused consumer tech blog M.I.C. Gadget, which on late Monday translated what it said was an undercover Shanghai Evening Post reporter’s firsthand account of 10 days of working at a Foxconn factory in Taiyuan, China, including on the assembly line of the iPhone 5.
The undercover reporter’s account, said to be published in The Shanghai Evening Post on August 27 but which is not available online, details bug-infested dormitories, long hours of repetitive, body-aching work and punishment and public humiliation by superiors for faltering or taking breaks during production, and worker contracts listing numerous penalties and only few rewards for certain behavior.
Meanwhile, Foxconn provided TPM a new statement on denying the latest reports of intern exploitation specifically centered around the production of the iPhone 5. In it, Foxconn repeats previous claims that interns are free to leave the company as they wish, but also states firmly that they are paid the same as entry-level workers and receive “relevant industry experience.” Read Foxconn’s new statement rebutting reports of intern exploitation in full.