A recent investigation by the Financial Times has uncovered evidence of high school students working long hours assembling the iPhone X in Chinese factories. The students are interning at Hon Hai Precision Industry, more commonly known as Foxconn, Apple’s largest contract manufacturer. Foxconn has brought a halt to the practice.
China outlaws students working longer than 40 hours a week. Over 3,000 students were reported to work at the Zhengzhou plant, in Northern China, who allegedly worked 11-hour days as a matter of routine.
“We are being forced by our school to work here,” the FT quoted Ms Yang, an 18-year-old, who was studying to be a train attendant and feared to give her first name. “The work has nothing to do with our studies.”
There is a wide gulf between the students’ testimonies and their employer’s account. Following the allegations, Foxconn said that no students were pressed into work and announced that it took “immediate action” to stop the practice.
Apple had indicated that audits had previously highlighted the illegal overtime, but it believed practice eradicated. It also assured that the students were both compensated and worked voluntarily, but they “should not have been allowed to work overtime”.
Students are employed in the area on a seasonal basis. Demand for the new iPhone X has been unexpectedly high. The slack appears to be taken up by a cheap source of local workers, who will build the smartphones by hand.
Foxconn had previously hit the press in 2010 when suicides within the company’s 400,000-man Shenzhen plant and reached the attention of world journalists who noted a worrying accumulation of deaths. In a single year, 18 attempted suicides were attempted, with 14 confirmed deaths.
Steve Jobs pointed out that the numbers of suicides were in line with national averages. Foxconn installed large ‘suicide nets’ to catch falling bodies.
Many criticised the companies’ unfeeling responses and argued that the attempts were often actions of desperate workers, driven to suicide by the harshness of the conditions.
Although the manufacturers claim that the environment has improved, investigative reporting by the Guardian from earlier this year uncovered a brutal environment.
One interviewee noted continued high levels of pressures, 12-hour shifts and underpay. Many, lonely and far from home, simply cannot cope. One interviewee noted: “It wouldn’t be Foxconn without people dying. Every year people kill themselves. They take it as a normal thing.”
The recent case in Zhengzhou demonstrates two things.
Firstly, the ‘gold standard’ of supplier audits do not provide the assurance we hope. Apple indicated that signs were already there for students working long hours, but clearly, the issue was not resolved. Audits as a source of information are ineffective unless remedial action is taken.
Follow-up with a clearly defined action plan and future spot checks can be a means to effect change. But alone, audits cannot solve issues.
Secondly, journalists work harder to uncover truths within the supply chain than do buyers. Many of the quoted articles above – especially the investigative pieces – have a highly critical tone. Employee grievances are printed virtually as fact with little balance from a corporate voice.
Foxconn is squarely in the press’ cross-hairs and its association with the Apple brand creates a high demand for any subsequent story.
The case notes from Zhengzhou, and previous investigations, reveal working conditions that would not be tolerated anywhere within the United States. Apple appears to be content that such matters have been ‘outsourced’ to Foxconn as operational issues.
Unfortunately, the press will marry its brand with that of its supplier – this is especially true when the story relates to the assembly of the iPhone X. Any reputational impact ton Foxconn will escalate to Apple.
I have long-argued for examining supply chains with the same intense focus as investigative journalists. Apple only recently received praise for its supply sustainability policies, but unless it takes a stronger line and looks to substantiate statements with concrete remedial actions, negative stories about its supply chain will continue to emerge.
Featured Image: AP Photo/File
Inset Image: Getty Images