Foxconn riot, strikes, coerced student labor, and more: All’s not well with iPhone 5 production

The latest red flag that all is not well with iPhone 5 production is the overnight riot that occurred at the dormitory of one of Foxconn’s plants in China that “makes parts for Apple’s iPhones and hardware for other companies” (quoting from NPR). According to Reuters, this riot involved 2,000 workers, was broken up by about 5,000 police, and the factory has been shut down for an indeterminate length of time.

The proximate cause of the riot is not yet clear; Foxconn said “the trouble started with a personal row that blew up into a brawl,” but Twitter-like postings claimed that “factory guards had beaten workers and that sparked the melee” (both quotes from the Reuters story). It is, of course, particularly difficult to obtain accurate, unbiased information of conditions at factories in China. At minimum, however, the severity of the riot demands an independent investigation and should give anyone pause before concluding that any worker rights concerns connected to the production of iPhones by Foxconn have been addressed.

Such pause is especially appropriate given other information that has come to light in the past two weeks. Just a few days ago, researchers from the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) released an investigative report (based on interviews from early September) finding that the iPhone has been produced under labor conditions that, as I have blogged about, resulted in several strikes by workers, with Foxconn responding to one of the strikes by simply dismissing the workers. Among other findings, SACOM reported the following conditions characterized production at Foxconn’s iPhone plants in Zhengzhou:  excessive overtime hours well above that permitted by Chinese law; unpaid overtime; no ergonomic breaks despite the demanding work; and exposure to possibly toxic chemicals. The SACOM report itself was consistent with another blog post by EPI and the Workers Rights Consortium, which described how significant labor rights violations continue at Foxconn, including the absence of any voice for workers.

All this information comes on top of stories that Foxconn has used coerced student labor in the production of iPhones. This information was first reported by the Chinese news media, such as in a Sept. 6 story in the Shanghai Daily that began, “Thousands of students in an east China city are being forced to work at a Foxconn plant after classes were suspended at the beginning of the new semester.” They “were driven to a factory … after the plant couldn’t find sufficient workers for the production of Apple’s much-anticipated iPhone 5.”

A riot, strikes, coerced student labor, excessive and sometimes unpaid overtime, unhealthy work conditions; these are all signs the iPhone that represents the advance of spectacular technology is being produced under labor conditions beckoning back to the worst of the early industrial age. Apple has shown remarkable leadership in developing products embraced in all corners of the world. It is long past time that Apple also show remarkable leadership in ensuring that the workers producing its products are treated well. Only then should Apple be considered a world-class company.