A recent audit of Apple’s manufacturing supply chain in China revealed numerous cases of illegal child labor, the company conceded late last month.
In one plant that makes circuit board components, the audit uncovered at least 74 cases of workers who were 16 years old or younger. In another case, the audit revealed a labor agency supplied workers by pressuring parents into forging papers falsifying their children’s true ages.
Human rights violations at plants owned by Foxconn, Apple’s manufacturing partner in China, have been making international headlines since a series of suicides at a factory in Chengdu in 2010 first drew attention to the plight of its workers.
In response, Apple hired the nonprofit Fair Labor Association to audit Foxconn to get a better sense of labor practices in the factories where its products are made. Troubling findings, including the discovery of child labor at plants that supply Foxconn, prompted Apple to call on Foxconn to boost labor union participation at its factories.
Apple’s turning to unions is understandable because of labor’s history of protecting workers. Labor unions helped eliminate some of the worst labor practices in the United States, and they continue to monitor employers to ensure ongoing compliance with laws that protect workers.
Labor unions, beginning in the 1830s, were among the first to campaign to end child labor, and unions were crucial to the passage of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which set wide-reaching standards to protect all workers, including children.
The FLSA limited children’s work, barring them from dangerous jobs they previously held in places like mines, mills and factories, and restricting when they may work so that employment does not interfere with their education.
Calling for greater union participation is unlikely to help Chinese workers, however.
There is only a single labor union in China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Backed by the governing Communist Party, the ACFTU discourages worker activism, and generally sides with management in labor disputes—making it nearly impossible for ACFTU to genuinely protect workers’ rights. ACFTU is what Americans would call a company union – essentially a union controlled by the company or the government, not by the workers.
Apple can push Foxconn to hold more union elections so that more workers participate in the organization. However, without free and impartial status, the ACFTU will never offer what workers really need: a means of reporting without fear of reprisal grievances like safety violations, inhumane overtime requirements and abuse of underage workers.
Many of the children found working in Apple plants in China are students who have been forced by school administrators to put in long hours—up to 12 a day—assembling components for iPhones and other electronics.
Their positions are called “internships” but in reality, students do not learn from their experiences and are pushed into factory work regardless of their area of study. In return, factories pay schools bonuses for providing cheap labor.
Previous investigations into Apple’s Chinese suppliers revealed some adults also work under harsh conditions.
Problems included compulsory overtime of up to 100 hours a month, crowded and unsafe work settings, improper disposal of hazardous waste and avoidable industrial accidents, like two explosions at Apple plants in 2011 that killed four workers and injured 75.
Real labor unions, as they exist in the United States and elsewhere, would remedy many of these problems, including the illegal use of child labor. However, in the absence of an independent organization with the power to stand up for workers’ rights, more union involvement in the Chinese factories that make Apple products is unlikely to make much difference.
Posted February 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm, in Union Matters