Lentis/Working Conditions at Apple Hardware Factories in China
Apple Inc. is the largest and most successful technology company in the world. People of all ages depend on Apple phones, laptops, and tablets on a daily basis for everything from work to entertainment. Despite their popularity and “feel good” image, in recent years Apple has been the center of attention on China labor controversies. Accounts of poor working conditions in Apple manufacturing facilities have sparked criticism and forced Apple to address their supplier standards.
334 of Apple's 789 suppliers are located in China. Foxconn and Pegatron are the primary suppliers of Apple electronics. Both of these companies, based out of Taiwan, have hundreds of thousands of employees working in China manufacturing parts for Apple. Foxconn, the larger of the two, used to make all of Apple's products, but Apple shifted production towards Pegatron in 2013. Each company produces a number of products for Apple.
Workers obtain jobs through agencies, many of which take fees. Workers usually work long shifts to acquire overtime pay, often times exceeding the 60 hour maximum set by Apple. The base monthly salary of a Foxconn worker is 1,800 Yuan, a livable wage. Many of these workers send money home, and therefore volunteer to put in as many hours as possible in order to maximize their profits. However, some do not have a choice, and say that managers force them to work more. Workers are made to work on weekends and forfeit time off. Some work as long as 16 hours a day and for as long as 18 days in a row. Factory workers will sleep at their workstations or anywhere available, because they are only allowed to leave their stations for a water or bathroom break. Workers live in dormitories set up by the companies, where up to 12 people share a room. Pegatron and Foxconn subsidize living spaces, food, and recreational facilities for its workers. Foxconn has put in place regulations to protect worker's rights, but these rules are regularly broken. All Chinese citizens are required to carry ID cards, but Foxconn confiscates their worker's cards so that they are not able to move about freely. Workers are required to pass a health and safety test, yet when they are taking the test, workers chant the answers so that no one can fail. Night shifts and working while standing up are supposed to be voluntary, but many supervisors these conditions. Workers are also required to attend unpaid meetings and are not duly compensated for overtime hours.
Both workers and activists have protested Foxconn's practices. In 2012 150 workers threatened to commit suicide due to unsafe working conditions. Around 24,000 people, or 5% of Foxconn's workforce, quit every month. Later in 2012 around 4,000 employees went on strike due to overworking and lack of proper training. Foxconn has fired workers in response to these protests before. Various student groups and labor unions have protested at Apple stores and Foxconn's headquarters. These groups seek to raise awareness about the Foxconn suicides.
In 2010, 14 Foxconn workers committed suicide with another four making attempts. In total, 23 workers have committed suicide between 2007 and 2013. Many protesters use these suicides as evidence of mistreatment from Foxconn, yet the number of suicides at the company is lower than the national average. These suicides caused an outcry in western media and caused Apple and Foxconn to improve their relationships with their work forces in China.
Responses from Apple
Following the 2006 article that brought light to the working conditions in Apple’s supply chains factories, the company formed an audit team to investigate the allegations. The team interviewed over 100 employees ranging from line workers to supervisors to executives. Apple concluded that Foxconn had complied with most but not all areas of the investigation. In 2007, Apple began yearly audits of their supplier working conditions, slowly raising standards and compliance rates.  In 2012, Apple became the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association (FLA). Apple requested that the FLA conduct investigations on Foxconn facilities.
These audits did not fix all of the problem at hand; they merely addressed them. After the high-reported number of suicides at one Foxconn factory, Apple issued a public statement. Steven Dowling, an Apple spokesperson said, “[Apple is] saddened and upset by the recent suicides at Foxconn." He also noted, "A team from Apple is independently evaluating the steps they are taking to address these tragic events and we will continue our ongoing inspections of the facilities where our products are made." Foxconn itself responded by installing safety nets around the factory. Another effort to help reduce the suicide rate was having workers pledge to not harm themselves.
Child Labor Issues
The 2011 progress report provided by Apple admitted to increases in child labor practices in some factories. The audit found 91 cases of underage employees. One factory in particular had hired 42 children to work on their assembly line. This resulted in Apple cutting ties with the facility. In other cases, the California-based company said it had been “aggressive” in returning children to their families and forced factories to cover the educational expenses for the underage workers for six months, or until they reached 16, “whichever is longer”.
News sources such as ABC news and BBC have released video documentaries covering the conditions inside Apple supplier factories. These sources show first-time footage of the factories, from workers entrance exams to assembly lines. They emphasize the exhausted workforce, low wages, crowded living conditions, and more. 
Apple was "deeply offended" by the BBC allegations. Jeff Williams, an Apple executive, said "We know of no other company doing as much as Apple does to ensure fair and safe working conditions". Williams goes on in his response to BBC by citing the progress the company has made. He notes in 2014 alone, 630 audits were completed. There has also been improvement in reducing the hours per-a-week worked to the maximum 60-hours. Williams acknowledges there are still short-comings in their supply chain; Apple strives to continuously improve their supply chain conditions.
The poor factory working conditions are not unique to Apple. Yet Apple has been the most heavily criticized company. Their suppliers also manufacture products for other major technology companies such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony. Apple's popularity and the 2010 Foxconn suicides made them the focus of scrutiny and protests. While Apple has done more to address worker issues than most technology companies, media outlets rarely mention their improvements. Reports continue to emphasize poor conditions in Apple factories instead of addressing issues of Chinese labor throughout the industry.
In the 1990's, Nike received heavy scrutiny for factory conditions overseas and for using sweatshops. They were not the only company with poor working conditions, but the negative publicity focused on them. The criticism built up to where Nike had to make a change. According to Inaes Kaempfer, an auditor in the Fair Labor Association, Apple has reached their "Nike Moment." The criticism is forcing Apple to improve, while others in the industry are unnoticed.
Urban-Rural Divide in China
China’s income inequality has grown rapidly over the last three decades, reaching Gini coefficients above 0.5 around 2010. The widest disparity is between urban and rural residents with an income ratio recorded at 3.23:1. The widening economic gap can be partially attributed to government policies favoring the more developed coastal regions over the inland regions. As a result, many rural residents move to coastal areas for higher wages. China had a total of 229.8 million rural migrant workers by the end of 2009.
Rural migrant workers account for a majority of the workforce in Apple manufacturing facilities. There has been significant criticism of Apple workers wages, yet the base salary for a Foxconn worker is close to the average urban income. Urban wages allow young workers to more easily provide for their families. Reports show that living conditions in rural communities have improved since young workers began moving to industrial regions for higher wages. While the living conditions for the factory workers have been criticized, they are still improvements from many rural regions. Workers have access to community activities, athletic fields, classes, and other resources that aren't available in their hometowns. With regards to salary and living conditions, Apple suppliers such as Foxconn are providing better employment opportunities to millions of Chinese rural residents.
Despite protests and negative publicity in recent years, Apple's market value has continued to rise. Even following the 2010 Foxconn suicides, iPhone sales skyrocketed. Ironically, many people who speak out against Apple labor practices probably own an Apple product. This illustrates a conflict with ethical consumerism. Consumers are quick to critique the conditions of Apple suppliers’ factories, but when it comes to the products, they can’t get enough. With the release of each new iPhone generation, Apple simply can't keep up with demand. Apple has to rely on cheap labor to feasibly produce enough iPhones. Unless demand decreases, Apple products will not be ethically sourced.
The controversy over Apple’s labor practices in China is a complex sociotechnical issue. Observing these issues from a distance and relying on media outlets skews information. On the surface it appears as if Apple is simply an unethical corporation, and biased reports reinforce this notion. While Apple may have labor issues to address, they are not alone. Their case sheds light on flaws within the technology industry as a whole and the unwanted consequences of consumerism.
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