Slowly but Surely, Positive Changes are Coming to Chinese Factories

Earlier this year, I wrote about the strange story of Mike Daisey, an author and speaker who released a riveting account of his trips to Foxconn, the Chinese factory that produces Apple’s iPhone and iPad (along with many other electronic devices). He reported seeing poor working conditions, health risks, and other disturbing things, and his report garnered much acclaim and attention.

And then it was revealed that Daisey’s claims were riddled with lies and half-truths.

However, it was true that Chinese factories like Foxconn did have problems, including forcing employees to work long overtime hours in less-than-desirable working conditions. In recent months, both Foxconn and Apple — arguably Foxconn’s most visible and important contract — have come under increased scrutiny and pressure to improve the situation for Foxconn’s employees. And, according to this recent New York Times piece, those efforts seem to be paying off.

[I]n March… a critical meeting had occurred between Foxconn’s top executives and a high-ranking Apple official. The companies had committed themselves to a series of wide-ranging reforms. Foxconn, China’s largest private employer, pledged to sharply curtail workers’ hours and significantly increase wages — reforms that, if fully carried out next year as planned, could create a ripple effect that benefits tens of millions of workers across the electronics industry, employment experts say.

Other reforms were more personal. Protective foam sprouted on low stairwell ceilings inside factories. Automatic shut-off devices appeared on whirring machines. Ms. Pu got her chair. This autumn, she even heard that some workers had received cushioned seats.

The changes also extend to California, where Apple is based. Apple, the electronics industry’s behemoth, in the last year has tripled its corporate social responsibility staff, has re-evaluated how it works with manufacturers, has asked competitors to help curb excessive overtime in China and has reached out to advocacy groups it once rebuffed.

What’s more, these changes aren’t just limited to Foxconn and Apple. The Times piece points out that “Executives at companies like Hewlett-Packard and Intel say those shifts have convinced many electronics companies that they must also overhaul how they interact with foreign plants and workers.”

I’m under no illusions that these changes are purely altruistic in nature: no doubt Foxconn, Apple, et al. want to head off bad press as much as possible (not to mention any increased government oversight). There are also plenty of hurdles still left to overcome as these reforms take place. (Interestingly, the reforms have received criticism from some factory employees, who can no longer work as long, and earn as much money, as they once could.)

Still, change for the better is change for the better, and employees being treated a bit more fairly and equitably — especially in such a cutthroat arena as electronics production, where margins can be razor thin — is something to be encouraged. It will be interesting to see how the effects of these reforms move beyond the factory floor. For example, the Times piece includes this little anecdote:

As summer turned to autumn and then winter, Ms. Pu began to sign up for Foxconn’s newly offered courses in knitting and sketching. At 25 and unmarried, she already felt old. But she decided that she should view her high-backed chair as a sign. China’s migrant workers are, in a sense, the nation’s boldest risk-takers, transforming entire industries by leaving their villages for far-off factories to power a manufacturing engine that spans the globe.

Ms. Pu had always felt brave, and as this year progressed and conditions inside her factory improved, she became convinced that a better life was within reach. Her parents had told her that she was free to choose any husband, as long as he was from Sichuan. Then she found someone who seemed ideal, except that he came from another province.

Ms. Pu decided to go against her parents’ wishes and started dating the guy anyway. According to her, the changes that occurred this year, including the improved working conditions, made her realize her value as an individual. The steps taken by Foxconn, such as offering sketching classes and a new chair to Ms. Pu, might seem like baby steps, but they’ve obviously had a huge positive impact.

Image via Apple.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.


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