The global controversy surrounding the treatment of assembly-line workers who manufacture iPhones and iPads -- and just about every other consumer device -- is triggering an unprecedented effort by Apple (AAPL) and its chief supplier, Foxconn, to lift the veil of secrecy that normally surrounds their operations in China and highlight how they have improved conditions for those employees.
Since a series of reports about troubling conditions at Foxconn plants, including suicides and charges of forced overtime, worker abuse and unsafe conditions, Apple and Foxconn have moved quickly to address the issue, stepping up audits of all Apple suppliers and giving workers pay raises. Now the companies are ready to show off what they've done.
Recently, a reporter and photographer for this newspaper were invited by Apple and Foxconn to visit a factory campus in Shenzhen, a coastal city in southern China, to spotlight efforts to change the work environment for hundreds of thousands of workers across the manufacturer's vast empire in China. The daylong visit included unhindered access to parts of the nearly 1-square-mile complex, and interviews with five employees chosen by Foxconn who have participated in a college program sponsored by the two companies that offers classes ranging from
English to engineering, and awards two-year associate degrees. The journalists, though, were not allowed inside a factory.
The sprawling complex known as Foxconn City resembles a college campus as much as it does one of the world's most famous tech factories, where gadgets of all shapes roll off assembly lines that operate around the clock. It is dotted with grocery stores, restaurants and recreation facilities and has its own security guards, who diligently check bags of pedestrians and trunks of vehicles leaving the compound to ensure device prototypes are not removed without permission.
Though Foxconn has long denied it exploits workers in unsafe working conditions, a top executive of Foxconn's parent company, Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision, said in an interview that the company is devoting more time and resources to ensure employees understand their legal rights, know where to find help and are encouraged to alert others if they spot signs of depression in co-workers, such as refusing to eat. Supervisors are also receiving management training.
It will "take a mind-set change to be more people-centric," said Louis Woo, special assistant to Hon Hai
founder Terry Gou.
Some labor rights activists applaud the campaigns of Apple and Foxconn -- they believe such efforts by two of the most influential players in the electronics industry will pressure competitors throughout China to do likewise -- while others remain unconvinced the changes go far enough.
In a report it made public earlier this year, Apple highlighted 229 audits the Cupertino company conducted of its suppliers, which uncovered labor violations, such as the use of child labor. In March, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Fair Labor Association said its investigation of Apple's suppliers discovered labor violations as well -- with workers clocking in workweeks of more than 60 hours and some exposed to hazardous conditions. Foxconn vowed to ease overtime and raise hourly wages to compensate for reduced hours.
"They are definitely responding," said Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which promotes the rights of workers on the mainland, but "it's very difficult to gauge how that response is translated into improved conditions" across a company with 1.2 million Chinese workers.
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