Professionalism/Tang Mingfang, Foxconn, and Amazon

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Background and Issues with Foxconn[edit | edit source]

Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd., is the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics, with factories across mainland China and plans to expand to the U.S. It has a growing revenue of $175 billion and over a million employees.[1] Its plants are best known for the design of electronics such as iPads, iPods, Nokia devices, Sony devices, and even Apple's iPhone. Foxconn also manufacturers Amazon's Alexa devices such as the Kindle, Echo and Echodot.

Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. (Foxconn)

Foxconn factories had many issues. In 2010, the company was hit by a wave of worker suicides, with one worker jumping from his apartment only a month after joining the company. In 2012, a Foxconn audit found illegal overtime work and unpaid wages. Employees often worked more than 60 hours a week and around two-thirds of workers felt their take-home pay was inadequate in fulfilling basic needs.[2] Other serious accidents have occurred at the factory, such as an electric shock which damaged a worker's brain in 2011 and an explosion in the same year, which injured eighteen and killed four people.[3] Foxconn also admitted to having hired teens as young as 14 years old. Many students, who were between 17 and 19 years old, worked overtime for up to 11 hours a day and were told they were obligated to work at the factory for a certain amount of time in order to graduate.[4] Having 7,400 workers, interns comprise about 21% of the facility’s workforce, which is more than double the 10% allowed under Chinese law.[5] In addition, Foxconn has required teachers to enlist and supervise students to work at the facility, and teachers frequently attack interns both physically and verbally. On top of this, harsh managers would often humiliate workers for their mistakes, which has led to many riots over the years.

Tang Mingfang's Role in Exposing Foxconn[edit | edit source]

Tang Mingfang, a 43-year-old employee at Foxconn, witnessed the awful working conditions firsthand. In 2019, Mingfang leaked documents to the China Labor Watch, a New York-based activist organization, which revealed that the Foxconn factory in Hengyang, China forced underaged school children to work for egregiously long hours. Foxconn immediately responded by accusing Mingfang of infringing on business trade secrets law, and he was detained by the Chinese Public Safety.[6] In an interview with the Observer, Mingfang stated, "My father always taught me that I should be a good person and, because I followed my heart and believed that justice should be served, I reported the serious violations at Hengyang Foxconn. Yet my imprisonment has caused such great harm to me and my family.”[7]

Amazon and the Chinese Government's Response[edit | edit source]

When Tang was originally imprisoned, he stated that he initially received a sympathetic hearing from the police when he explained that he had only acted to expose illegal activity in the factory.

When he refused to accept he was guilty, however, he stated that “the police officer battered me multiple times during the interrogation, he repeatedly slapped and hit me in my face and in the back of my head.” He said he unwillingly signed a confession to infringing trade secrets after being handcuffed to a bed overnight because he feared he would be beaten again.

Various labor organizations and human rights organizations had written to Amazon to offer support for Tang Mingfang, however Amazon has yet to offer any. They did, however, release the following statement in 2019: "While Amazon did not answer specific questions, they stated the following: “We do not tolerate violations of our supply chain standards. We regularly assess suppliers, using independent auditors as appropriate, to monitor continued compliance and improvement – if we find violations, we take appropriate steps, including requesting immediate corrective action.”[5]

Amazon, being under public scrutiny, sent its own staff into the factory to investigate the labor law breaches and Foxconn was forced to pay more than $200,000 in compensation for underpaying workers making Echo and Echo Dot devices in the city of Hengyang.[5] Amazon also requested an immediate corrective action plan from Foxconn. However, Tang Mingfang was imprisoned for 2 years and while he said he believed Amazon acted correctly in addressing the illegal working practices, he believes Amazon should have intervened on his behalf, which is in line with US law offering protection to whistleblowers and guaranteeing their freedom of speech.

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

As of 2022, Mingfang has remained in prison for over two years and has appealed to higher courts to be exonerated. In a letter to Jeff Bezos, Mingfang implored him to support his case, citing his responsibility to protect the rights for both workers for Amazon’s suppliers and those who report violations. Although Amazon initially responded to Mingfang's situation by emphasizing their diligence in assessing international supply chains, neither the company nor Jeff Bezos has offered any support since.

Despite Amazon’s silence, other organizations have spoken up on the matter. China Labor Watch (CLW) is a New York-based, non-profit organization that monitors and defends Chinese workers rights.[8] Li Qiang, the director of CLW, wrote to Jeff Bezos imploring him to intervene: “CLW believes that Amazon has the responsibility to call for China to free this innocent volunteer, who provided the evidence of labor violations in an Amazon supplier factory, and thank him for helping improving workers’ conditions…. It is unacceptable and unfair that Tang Mingfang is serving jail time for trying to help Amazon improve the labor conditions in its supplier factory.”[9] Similarly, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), a bipartisan organization of the U.S. Congress, addressed a letter to Amazon asking for support in Mingfang’s court appeal and for the company to publicly update their policies so that exposure of labor abuses is not considered a breach of company confidentiality.[10] The CECC also urged Amazon to include specific consequences for any suppliers found to be guilty of forced labor.[10]

Legislative Considerations and Application to Professional Ethics[edit | edit source]

China has historically been underdeveloped in terms of whistleblower protection legislation.[11] However, several occasions in recent years have emphasized the need for the establishment of stronger legal protections for whistleblowers in China. In 2019, the State Council, which oversees provincial governments, issued the Guiding Opinions on Strengthening and Standardizing In-process and Ex-post Regulation, which requires both the central and provincial governments to implement whistleblower protection systems.[11] In addition, China’s Ministry of Finance  issued the Interim Measures for Rewards for Whistleblower Reports of Major Violations in the Field of Market Regulation in 2021, which establishes monetary incentives for whistleblowers acting in the public interest.[11] China also has several labor laws that cover a wide range of areas such as expected work responsibilities, compensation, hours, and workplace safety protections.[12] However, Chinese whistleblower protection programs and labor laws do not necessarily apply to foreign-registered employers and their employees.[12]

Amazon’s internal company policy also provides a system for whistleblower protection. According to the Grievance Mechanism and Whistleblower Protections sections of the Amazon Supply Chain Standards, suppliers are expected to protect whistleblower confidentiality and to "prohibit retaliation against worker whistleblowers, who in good faith report improper conduct by a Supplier or an employee or officer of a Supplier."[13] Evidently, Mingfang’s case calls into question the efficacy of these policies and the extent to which foreign suppliers are monitored and held responsible for violations. It also highlights the need for stronger protections for those acting in the public interest and underscores the shared responsibility of companies and governments to protect workers’ rights in global supply chains.

A Similar Case to Foxconn[edit | edit source]

Amazon has had similar cases with whistleblowers exposing factory conditions. In 2020, Lina Rodriguez, a former employee of Amazon, was fired from Amazon’s sorting center in Thornton because she had repeatedly raised concerns on COVID-19 risks and eventually filed a whistleblower complaint with the state labor department. The reason she had spoken up about it was due to Amazon's lack of guidance on health and safety information in Spanish, as well as their poor efforts on contact tracing.[14] Rodriguez filed a 9-page complaint along with lawyers from two Denver-based law offices, and cited the Public Health Emergency Whistleblower (PHEW) Act, which protected workers who raised concerns about public safety during a public health crisis. The report called the Thornton facility an "ineffective sham" as workers were unaware if they had been exposed to the virus and management had failed to follow proper safety procedures.[15]

Amazon officials once again did not address any specific allegations in the complaint, but instead fired Rodriguez for "time theft" as they claimed that Rodriguez often "clocked in and then either left the building or failed to report to her work assignment".[15] David Seligman, one of the attorneys involved, claimed that these “time theft” allegations and firing workers are a common theme for Amazon when it is seeking to silence workers who pitch concerns about workplace conditions and safety protocols.

Similarly to Tang Mingfang, Lina Rodriguez wants accountability from Amazon and is encouraging her story to be spread. She has yet to receive any response from Amazon on next steps in improvement for their factories. There are more cases alike to these, regarding Amazon and other tech giants, where the whistleblowers have yet to receive justice for the unfair treatment they've received when exposing the human condition in factory work.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Narioka, Kosaku. "Foxconn's 2022 Revenue Hits Record High". WSJ. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  2. Williams, Matt (2012-03-29). "Foxconn audit finds illegal overtime and unpaid wages at Apple factory" (in en-GB). The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. 
  3. Merchant, Brian (2017-06-18). "Life and death in Apple’s forbidden city" (in en-GB). The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. 
  4. Ong, Thuy (2017-11-21). "Foxconn reportedly employed students to work overtime illegally to assemble the iPhone X". The Verge. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  5. a b c Valinsky, Jordan (2019-08-09). "Amazon is investigating alleged child labor law violations at a Foxconn facility that makes Echoes and Kindles | CNN Business". CNN. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  6. Zhang, Xiaochun (2021-06-22). "Forced Labor Whistleblower Was Sent To Prison By Amazon Supply Chain Foxconn". China Labor Watch. Retrieved 2023-05-03.
  7. Chamberlain, Gethin (2022-01-30). "Alexa whistleblower demands Amazon apology after being jailed and tortured" (in en-GB). The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. 
  8. "About CLW". China Labor Watch. Retrieved 2023-04-29.
  9. Chamberlain, Gethin (2022-01-30). "Alexa whistleblower demands Amazon apology after being jailed and tortured" (in en-GB). The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. 
  10. a b "Commissioners Ask Amazon to Advocate for Labor Rights Activist | Congressional-Executive Commission on China". Retrieved 2023-04-29.
  11. a b c "Whistleblowing in China: Demystifying the Myths". Clifford Chance. Retrieved 2023-04-29.
  12. a b "China labor laws: An overview for global employers". Retrieved 2023-04-29.
  14. "PHEW Whistleblower Complaint against Amazon – Towards Justice". Retrieved 2023-05-04.
  15. a b "Former employee files whistleblower complaint alleging Amazon fired her from Thornton facility for raising COVID safety concerns". The Denver Post. 2021-05-07. Retrieved 2023-05-04.