By Mahesh Sharma

An undercover investigation has unveiled the working and disciplinary conditions in place at Apple’s Chinese technology manufacturer Foxconn, including allegations that staff worked 12-hour days for almost an entire fortnight in the six months before the launch of the iPad.

Labour organisation students and scholars against corporate misbehaviour (SACOM) yesterday released the report “Workers as Machines: Military Management in Foxconn” (PDF), which contains the findings of a four-month investigation to explore the working conditions at the Foxconn factories, where 17 workers have committed suicide this year.

The allegations of worker abuse, illegal labour practices and unsafe working conditions were “strongly and categorically” rejected by Foxconn Technology Group, which manufactures products for a wide range of vendors including Apple, HP and Nokia.

Over 100 Foxconn staff were interviewed and researchers worked undercover in factories for the report, which concluded that while the manufacturer has taken measures to address the worker suicides, structural reform is necessary to eliminate the issue.

The SACOM report said that a standard work week is 10-hour days, six days a week and that workers work 140 hours of overtime a month, which far exceeds the Chinese law of a maximum 36 hours of overtime a month.

There were significant demands in the lead-up to the launch of the Apple iPad, according to a Foxconn engineer at the integrated digital product business group (IDPBG) in Shenzhen, who participated in the investigation on the condition of anonymity.

“We produced the first-generation iPad,” he said. “We were busy throughout a six-month period and had to work on Sundays. We only had a rest day every 13 days. And there was no overtime premium for weekends. Working for 12 hours a day really made me exhausted.”

Workers cannot reject overtime because they are forced to sign a “voluntary overtime pledge”, the report said, and they need the extra payment to supplement low wages.

The report also outlined penalties imposed on staff, including a situation where a worker was forced to make 300 copies of the quotations of Foxconn founder Terry Gou.

The worker had forgotten to fix a screw in a mobile phone and was made to copy Gou’s quotes such as “a harsh environment is a good thing”, “my confidence remains unshaken even if fortune turns bad as I trust my own ability”, “devil is in the details” and “a successful person looks for method, a failure person look for excuse”.

In a statement, Foxconn did not specifically address these specific circumstances but broadly refuted the report’s allegations and said it strictly adheres to all government workplace legislation, including the law to increase the minimum working wage on 1 October.

“Foxconn is certainly not perfect, but we take our responsibility to our employees very seriously and we are committed to giving each and every one of our more than 937,000 employees in China a safe and positive working environment, and compensation and benefits that are competitive with all of our industry peers,” the company said in a statement.

“We are responding to the media coverage because we believe it is important to correct these unsubstantiated allegations, which many media outlets are treating as facts without giving our company an opportunity to present our side of the issue.”

Foxconn said that all overtime is voluntary and that between June and September workers volunteered for an average of 59.65 hours a month, which is within the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) guidelines that workers work no more than 60 hours per week including overtime.

It said that by 2011 it aims for workers to not work more than 36 hours a month, which will be achieved by expanding its operations to inland China and hiring more workers.

“The new wage levels will ensure that our workers maintain the same or higher income levels with these reduced overtime hours that they had if they worked more hours under the previous compensation arrangement.”

The report made a number of recommendations including calling on Apple and other manufacturers to reform their purchasing model and raise product unit prices.

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