Is Change Emerging in China’s Factories?

Keith Bradsher and Charles Duhigg of The New York Times report that electronics companies such as Apple, which came under heavy criticism earlier this year for the working conditions on its Chinese assembly lines, have changed the way they approach social responsibility at the factories that manufacture their products:

When Ms. Pu was hired at this Foxconn plant a year earlier, she received a short, green plastic stool that left her unsupported back so sore that she could barely sleep at night. Eventually, she was promoted to a wooden chair, but the backrest was much too small to lean against. The managers of this 164,000-employee factory, she surmised, believed that comfort encouraged sloth.

But in March, unbeknown to Ms. Pu, 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.

Foxconn, which manufactures electronics for the likes of Apple, Dell, Samsung and others, pledged earlier this year to improve conditions in its factories after the Fair Labor Association published a report finding violations of both Chinese law and industry codes of conduct. Apple also issued a statement to The New York Times in response to its questions for the article:

“Apple takes working conditions very seriously and we have for a long time. Our efforts range from protecting to empowering to improving the lives of everyone involved in assembling an Apple product. No one in our industry is doing as much as we are, in as many places, touching as many people as we do. Through years of hard work and steadfast commitment, we have set workplace, dormitory and safety standards, sought help from the world’s leading experts, and established groundbreaking educational programs for workers. Since 2008, more than 200,000 factory workers have taken free classes including college-level courses provided by Apple, and over one million employees have been educated on their rights through our worker empowerment training program.

“We believe workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment where they can earn competitive wages and express their concerns freely. Our suppliers have to live up to that if they want to do business with Apple.

“Apple is in a unique position to lead and we have embraced this role since the earliest days of our supplier responsibility program. We do all these things out of respect for our customers and, most of all, the people who make our products.”

See also the New York Times’ previous in-depth reporting on Foxconn as part of their iEconomy series: Part 1: How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work and Part 2: In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad . Read more about FoxconnApple and labor conditions in China via CDT, including, “This American Life’s Foxconn Retraction: Reactions,” which looks at recent coverage of Foxconn.