Workers at Foxconn, one of Apple's biggest foreign supply chains, have complained about "military-like" working conditions, characterized by repetitive work and 60-hour weeks. The employee sentiment is "obey or leave."
Workers at Foxconn, one of Apple's biggest foreign supply chains, have complained about "military-like" working conditions, characterized by repetitive work and 60-hour weeks. The employee sentiment is "obey or leave." Reuters

There was a four-month period in late 2011 where most Apple news was positive, bolstered by sympathy and compassion for the company's co-founder Steve Jobs after he passed away on Oct. 5 -- just one day after the iPhone 4S unveiling. But in January, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company lost some favor when more reports surfaced about the controversial working conditions within its foreign supply chains, particularly within China's massive Foxconn factories.

After The New York Times delivered two stories detailing how Apple handles its overseas operations, CNN released a report on Monday that includes an interview with an 18-year-old female college student by the name of Miss Chen, who works overtime at Foxconn building iPads -- even though she had never seen one of Apple's finished tablets before. (Miss Chen is not the woman's real name; CNN chose her pseudonym to protect the true identity of the worker. Chen told CNN that Foxconn employees have been instructed not to talk to reporters or else criminal liability shall be investigated according to law.)

Foxconn, one of Apple's biggest manufacturing partners, employs hundreds of thousands of workers -- about 230,000 -- at its sprawling plant informally known as Foxconn City, and makes them work day and night shifts to build Apple products, in addition to Microsoft's Xbox consoles and Amazon's Kindle e-readers. Workers are paid less than $17 a day and often report working 12 hours a day, six days a week. Employees are provided air conditioning, heating, cafeterias, and dormitories to sleep in.

Even though some experts say Foxconn's conditions are still better than most Chinese factories, workers like Miss Chen -- who claim working 60-plus hours a week applying upwards of 4,000 stickers a day onto iPad screens by hand -- are evidence to the contrary.

It's so boring, I can't bear it anymore, Miss Chen said. Everyday is like: I get off from work and I go to bed. I get up in the morning, and I go to work. It is my daily routine and I almost feel like an animal.

Chinese labor groups, such as the Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior, say Foxconn's culture is military-like and one of surveillance, obedience and not challenging authority. Workers say Foxconn's approach is obey or leave.

During my first day of work, an older worker said to me, 'Why did you come to Foxconn? Don't ever think about it again and leave right now', said Miss Chen, who was an aspiring biologist at a Chongqing university before Foxconn offered her a one-month working contract. Foxconn employees have a saying, They use women as men and men as machines.

Like machines, Foxconn workers are expected to work long hours on very little fuel. One notable case of this treatment, detailed by the New York Times, involved a Foxconn foreman waking up 8,000 workers from their dorms in the middle of the night to accommodate a last-minute redesign for an iPhone. The foreman gave each employee a biscuit and a cup of tea before they were forced to work a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into frames.

The speed and flexibility is breathtaking, said a former Apple executive. There's no American plant that can match that.

Concerns about working conditions within Apple's supply chain first arose in late 2009, when a string of employee suicides occurred at a Foxconn plant in southern China, prompting the factory to install nets to discourage workers from jumping. The following year, Apple released its 2010 report on employment practices of its suppliers, but the memo only mentioned child labor as a growing issue.

In recent months, however, Apple and Foxconn have been more open in addressing concerns about the factory conditions. After the first New York Times story was published, Apple's CEO Tim Cook wrote a lengthy letter to his employees.

As a company and as individuals, we are defined by our values, Cook said. Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple's values today, and I'd like to address this with you directly. We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It's not who we are. For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers' manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am. For the people who aren't as close to the supply chain, you have a right to know the facts.

Cook added that Apple is focused on educating workers about their rights, so they are empowered to speak up when they see unsafe working conditions or unfair treatment. Apple released an official statement following Cook's e-mail, additionally noting that Apple was the first company admitted to the Fair Labor Association, which is one of the world's leading non-profits dedicated to improving working conditions. By virtue of joining the FLA, Apple grants the association independent access into its foreign facilities and to report any findings on its website.

In contrast to various lengthy statements from Apple, Foxconn released a short, singular statement to CNN.

Foxconn takes our responsibility to our employees very seriously and we work hard to give our 1.2 million employees in China a safe and positive working environment and compensation and benefits that are competitive with all of our industry peers in that location, said Foxconn in an e-mail.

Apple released its annual supplier responsibility report in January, which revealed a total of 229 audits conducted throughout 2011, an 80 percent increase from the year prior. Apple also reported fewer cases of underage labor at its overseas factories and zero intentional underage hirings.

While Apple has largely improved its hiring practices, Chinese environmentalist groups still claim as many as 22 of the company's foreign factories continue to release toxic gasses, heavy metal sludge and other pollutants into the environment. In November 2011, Apple admitted that 15 of the 22 mentioned facilities were indeed product parts suppliers, which was the first time that Apple conceded any wrongdoing in relation to environmental pollution from any of its Chinese supply chains.

Apple said it will hire a third-party auditing firm to investigate its Chinese suppliers, and met with five different Chinese environmental groups to openly discuss its findings.

Despite Apple's efforts to be transparent, the bottom line remains the same: Millions of Chinese workers are being mistreated under Apple's watch, while the company continues to enjoy unprecedented success. Apple earned a record $46.3 billion in sales last quarter, and with sleek new products on the horizon, that number only looks to increase. Demand for Apple products is higher than its ever been, which means production in the company's foreign supply chains will be kicked into overdrive. Expect more unhappy workers to file anonymous reports with news organizations prodding into Apple's questionable supply chain practices.

Unfortunately, Apple has no incentive to stop utilizing Foxconn's army of worker bees, not when they continue to produce insanely great devices faster than any other working force on the planet. Hopefully, Apple will realize that it can do better than this because they can afford to figure out a solution. Whether they pay the workers more, or compensate them in other ways, Apple needs to flip the script and recognize these workers. Compared to machines after all, like Miss Chen said, Humans are cheaper.