Here’s What Working Conditions At Chinese Electronics Plants Are Really Like [Exclusive Interview]


Adapted from CC-licensed photo by Mrbill on Flicker.
Adapted from CC-licensed photo by Mrbill on Flicker.

If you own an iPhone, laptop, Kindle, Android device, electric toothbrush, baby monitor or GPS navigator, it was probably put together by a worker in a Chinese factory.

Although Apple is currently juggling the PR hot-potato over working conditions at Foxconn plants in China, a situation made more murky by the factual takedown of Mike Daisey’s monologue, dozens of other global companies make their must-have electronics there.

For a wider perspective, Cult of Mac tracked down one of the world’s leading experts on modern labor in Asia.

Dr. Boy Lthje is a sociologist at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research and currently a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii who has spent a decade visiting factories to study working conditions at electronics manufacturers in Asia, including Foxconn.

Dr. Boy Lthje.

Lthje and a research team traced the rise of electronics contract manufacturers in China as tech companies in the U.S. started outsourcing electronics production in the 1990s for a forthcoming book titled From Silicon Valley to Shenzen. (You can read an exclusive excerpt of it here.)

In this exclusive interview, he gives Cult of Mac an insider’s look at workers in Asia’s electronics industry, what makes the conditions there tougher than other kinds of factories in the region, why he’s skeptical about the Fair Labor Association audit and why there’s no comparison between your cruddy summer factory gig and holding down a job in China.

Cult of Mac: You’ve visited a lot of contract manufacturers in China and Asia, are they sweatshops?

Boy Lthje: No. The general picture in Asia and China in particular is that these are very large, very modern factories built according to the highest standards in technology, organization and human resource management. Of course, you can question what “human resource management” means, but it is very different from a low-end, medium-sized assembly company… That part of the industry is not very capital intensive and usually relies on manual labor.

In contract manufacturers, the assembly of large systems — like cell phones, iPads, iPods and notebook computers – is done from a very sophisticated base. It is very capital intensive and performed in large plants that provide a relatively good working environment compared to smaller companies or workplaces…

CoM: Can working conditions be improved at these factories?

BL: Absolutely. The problem is not the general working environment but how human labor is used in these factories. The work is very, very segmented and the degree of automation in most factories in China and Asia is lower than it would be in Europe or the United States… Also, personal control through supervisors along the assembly lines is very strict.

Generally, there’s a higher degree of manual labor because labor costs are lower and manual work is more flexible when it comes to rapidly reconfiguring production processes and working with lots and batches under changing market conditions…

The automated part of the assembly process is mostly Surface Mount Technology (SMT), basically, programmable automated machinery that places tiny little parts like connectors or chips or other electronic parts on printed circuit boards. There are different ways of designing this kind of work for the operator. For instance, in Europe, operators can be relatively skilled and supervise several lines at a time. They are basically engaged in troubleshooting and supervising.

In China – or other Asian countries – you find operators just monitoring one work station or one work process… So he or she is looking at a screen most of day, and when a red light or a green light or a blue light flashes, they’ll act to ensure smooth operations. The result in these factories is very, very deskilled work.

CoM: Is that because, as you pointed out in a paper, there’s an almost endless supply of unskilled migrant workers?

BL: Yes. In China, the workforces of all these electronics companies are 90 percent or more migrant workers. I’m talking about the operators, the people who work on the lines. The technical personnel in most of these places is either local or they are migrants but they have higher status because they are able to obtain local household registration. The migrant workers are not unskilled, since they often have good high school education. But they have no chance obtaining training in skilled industrial jobs… In China, household registration makes a huge, huge difference.

CoM: How does household registration affect workers at these plants?

BL: Hukou, or household registration, is one of basic things you need to understand about labor in China. Designed to prevent large-scale movement of people from the countryside to cities, it’s been in place since the 1950s. Your household registration as a citizen is only valid at your place of birth or the place of residence of your family.

So the 150-200 million migrant workers who live and work in large cities, like Shanghai or Shenzhen, can’t transfer their household registration to where they actually live and work. It means they have no access to health insurance, or any kind of welfare — you can’t send your kids to school locally, either, and there are restrictions on all kinds of public services.

In China, it makes an enormous difference in status. It’s as if they don’t have citizenship in their own country, comparable to Mexican migrant workers in the United States, for example.

CoM: So most workers at these electronics manufacturers are essentially second-class citizens?

BL: Yes. The workforces of these big electronics contract manufacturers are nearly 100 percent migrants at the operator level. It is the production model of the industry… In contrast, automobile manufacturing [in China] is mostly done with local workers who thereby have a very different status.

If you visit any car factory of a multinational, most workers are local and they have much better pay and totally different living conditions — they’re not living in dormitories, they live in houses or apartments. When they’re well paid, they might even own a car. This is more of a living situation that we would recognize for industrial workers.

The production model of the electronics contract manufacturers is very much based on the large-scale exploitation of migrant workers and these employers taking advantage of their discriminated status.

CoM: Can that be corrected at the policy level?

BL: Absolutely. In the long term, the situation can only be changed by reforming the Hukou system, but that’s not on the agenda in China right now. The key thing is the enforcement of existing rules.

Labor laws in China are quite good, in many aspects they are better and more comprehensive than they are in the U.S. Many of the rules are not enforced at the local level and this is the key problem at Foxconn in particular.

CoM: What labor laws are not enforced at Foxconn?

BL: Labor laws in China allow 36 hours of overtime work per month, this is a very strict rule. There can be some room for interpretation or distribution of those hours, sometimes over months or during a year. Typically, overtime is spread out in garment production, where the work is seasonal.

In Foxconn — and in most other electronic contract manufacturers, it’s the same for all of them — the working week is about 60 hours a week. At Foxconn, in particular, all the shift plans are calculated on this 60-hour work week.

This violates existing Chinese labor laws, but the local government and the local labor bureaus turn a blind eye to it. It’s very typical in China, this “flexible interpretation” of existing laws by local governments. If these rules were enforced, it would bring a huge change to this production model…

CoM: So would an investigation by an entity like the Fair Labor Association have any impact?

BL: No. It will likely have a negative impact; the activity of organizations like the FLA are basically used as an excuse by local governments not to enforce the existing laws.

Dozens of brands and manufacturers (NDR: including Apple, Sony, Microsoft, HP and manufacturing giants Foxconn and Flextronics) are members of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and their code of conduct stipulates that working 80 hours of overtime per month, or 60 total working hours a week, is “acceptable” for contract manufacturers and suppliers.

In many companies, they refer to this code of conduct to justify violating existing Chinese labor laws. We know of one case where the FLA investigated violations of working hours, I can’t mention the name but it was in Guangdong, the same province as the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen. In this case, the violation of existing overtime rules was not even mentioned in the report.

To change the situation of workers in these factories you have to enforce existing laws. This is a problem both inside China and at the international level. If the U.S. and E.U. made it a rule that national labor laws in countries where factories are located have to be respected as a condition for market access and certification for the products, it would be a big step forward.

Developed countries are ignoring the existing rules in developing countries instead of applying pressure to have those laws respected.

CoM: What about unions?

BL: Workers in these factories need their own independent union representation, that’s also key. There are some developments in this direction, particularly in the Guangdong province. In 2010, there were numerous strikes at auto parts manufacturers which happened at around the same time as the tragic suicides in Foxconn… In some of these strikes, the unions tried to negotiate wage raises with employers. In some cases it happened and some it did not…

One of the consequences was that local trade unions started working to gain independence from the government, from the party and particularly from the employers. So they are trying to represent workers in collective bargaining. There are some cases where wages have been increased substantially, but most are in the automotive industry… It’s still in its infancy, but that’s the right direction to move in. It would open substantial opportunities for workers and migrant workers in particular…

CoM: Some people in the U.S. have the perception that Foxconn jobs are no worse than bad jobs that many people had in high school or college — is that true?

BL: How bad should a job be? (Laughs.) The comparison doesn’t really work, these Chinese workers aren’t college kids who need some extra money. They are people from very, very poor villages and their families need this money to make ends meet. This is why they take these long trips – some of them travel 2,000 miles – to get to these workplaces and they can only go home maybe once a year, during the Spring Festival.

These aren’t jobs they can just leave after a few months and go back to school. Too much depends on it.

Follow @nmar on Twitter


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