Why Are Chinese Workers At Apple Suppliers Foxconn and Pegatron Trying to Commit Suicide?

Tian Yu, a 17-year old Chinese employee of Foxconn, Apple’s chief supplier and manufacturer of tablet and smart phone devices, was in a coma for 12 days after her suicide attempt.

At Foxconn, her managers made her work over 12 hours a day, often without a day off for up to two weeks, and attend unpaid work meetings on top of that. Tian Yu’s demanding work schedule in Foxconn’s sweatshop-like conditions forced her to skip meals and accept the manufacturer’s restricted toilet break policy. Her resolve eventually cracked when the company didn’t pay her the meager month’s wages of approximately $215 due to an alleged administrative error, prompting her to jump out of her dormitory window.

In 2010 alone, 18 workers, all of whom were 25 and younger, attempted to jump to their deaths. This is no doubt why Foxconn placed a net below its employee’s dormitories. Foxconn’s blatant worker rights abuses and sweat shop-like conditions on their assembly line is indicative of a wider problem in the consumer electronics industry: The general unwillingness of both companies and their vendors to truly regulate and improve workers’ conditions.

Manufacturers like Foxconn predatorily target young, poor migrants from the countryside to work at their abysmal factories due to their economic and social vulnerability. Once there, Foxconn crowds them into dorms and assembly lines to begin work with absolutely no training. The shift begins with managers asking the employees “how are you?” The staff must reply “good, very good, very very good.” After that, the overseers enforce silence throughout the remainder of the shift.

Despite Foxconn’s draconian worker conditions and policies, they make razor-thin profit margins on the tablets and smart phones that they sell to Apple. To ensure a slim profit, Foxconn likely feels it must employ ethically and productively dubious management policies, enforcing inhumanely long hours and low pay.

To give further incentive to Foxconn’s behavior, the manufacturer is now competing with Pegatron for Apple’s business as CEO Tim Cook seeks to diversify the company’s supply chain. Although Apple and Pegatron both refuse to comment on the terms of their arrangement, the Wall Street Journal reports that Pegatron will accept even lower profit margins.

As expected in conjunction with lower profits, Pegatron tries to recuperate its losses, shifting the burden onto its employees to produce more and more as quickly as possible, unsurprisingly leading to more horror stories. China Labor Watch documents Pegatron’s abuse towards its 70,000 employees as it takes business from Foxconn. The labor rights organization found that conditions at Pegatron were even worse than at Foxconn, with 86 labor rights violations, including child labor, withholding employee pay, excessive hours, and taking employee identity cards so that they cannot leave. To add insult to injury, Pegatron factories also pollute the local water supply.

In 2012 Apple had to introduce labor reform regulations for its manufacturers due to public pressure over conditions in its Foxconn factories stemming from a comprehensive report from the Fair Labor Association. Nonetheless, Apple largely enables Foxconn and Pegatron to ignore its own labor policies, rendering the 2013 Apple Supplier Responsibility Progress Report little more than a PR smokescreen.

In the report, Apple stipulates a cap of 60 hours per week for employees, except in unusual circumstances wherein the employer can exceed that cap. In contrast, unenforced Chinese labor laws cap hours at 49 per week, meaning that the Chinese government has more rigorous labor rights standards than Apple. In violation of both Apple regulations and Chinese labor laws, most Pegatron employees work 66 to 69 hours per week while Tian Yu likely worked over 84 hours per week at Foxconn.

Despite Apple CEO Tim Cook’s token calls on his suppliers to improve working conditions, Apple has not provided any assistance, financial or otherwise, to implement more rigorous employee protections. It has not even considered renegotiating its contracts with Foxconn and Pegatron more favorably, which would allow the manufacturers more flexibility in implementing basic human rights standards as the managers wouldn’t need to resort to such extreme, inhumane measures just to turn a narrow profit. When the Guardian tried to reach Apple’s press office for comment, it told the news outlet that “it did not discuss such matters,” instead referring it to the toothless supplier responsibility report.

Although Apple, the industry giant, is naturally taking the most heat for its ethically dubious worker’s rights practices, China Labor Watch also found that Samsung’s suppliers practiced the same human rights violations in its factories. This is clearly an industry-wide problem and if electronics companies continue to shift all the blame onto the suppliers it chooses, rather than step up and take concrete action, suppliers will continue to abuse their workers. 

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Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris is a reporter with Inter Press Service News. He has worked in Muscat, Oman and was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He graduated from UW-Madison in 2011 with a BA in Middle East Studies.

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