Clueless in China

More criticism of how workers in the electronics supply chain are treated emerged early this month from China Labor Watch (CLW). The nonprofit has published a 122-page report on what it called “severe labor abuses” at eight {complink 4751|Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.} factories in China.

Ironically, such watchdog groups can do what they're doing because of the innovations of the electronics industry.

The nonprofit has been advocating for better treatment of workers in Chinese factories since 2000. In the last several years, it has turned its spotlight on the electronics industry, particularly contract manufacturers and suppliers to major OEMs. In June, it released a scathing report on Apple’s supply chain. With the Samsung report, “An Investigation of Eight Samsung Factories in China: Is Samsung Infringing Upon Apple’s Patent to Bully Workers?,” CLW seems to be affording equal time to both of these companies engaged in patent mega-battles.

CLW has given Samsung the same scrutiny it gave Apple. The eight factories it investigated from May to August employ more than 20,000 workers and manufacture cellphones, DVD players, mobile displays, and electronics parts and devices, the report said. Six are owned by Samsung; suppliers own the other two.

The abuse CLW alleges deserves attention, but what struck me most in perusing the report is that the nonprofit is using the mobile phone as a weapon against manufacturers of mobile phones. CLW has posted dozens of YouTube videos taken inside various Chinese factories. This is clearly one of the main ways it gathers information and documents evidence of abuse.

I watched a handful of the videos CLW has posted — not all of them concerning Samsung factories. They are crude and pretty boring. They were presumably taken by a CLW investigator posing as an employee. The people in the factories either don't notice or don't mind that someone's shooting video with a phone. The videos I watched didn't show abuses so much as workers going into the factory or eating lunch in the cafeteria. The thing that most caught my attention was the workers using their own phones in the cafeteria.

One of the most dramatic cases of alleged abuse was at a Samsung supplier, Tianjin Intops Co. Ltd., where most of the 1,200 workers are women. They are forced to stand 11 hours a day (without shoes) and assemble one cellphone casing every five seconds, according to the report. Employees work up to 150 hours of overtime a month during peak seasons, even though the legal limit is 36 hours a month, CLW said.

The nonprofit called on Samsung to make changes, including:

  • Establishing hotlines, so workers can report abuses anonymously
  • Reducing internal audits and increasing third-party audits of the facilities it uses
  • Providing human resource training to supervisors on the factory floor
  • Increasing transparency by publishing a list of suppliers and including those names on Samsung products
  • Allowing worker-organized unions in the factories

The image of the factory women with no shoes sticks in my mind, even though I didn't see a video of that. Why make them go barefoot? Was it to keep them from running away? More likely, it's to cut down on electrostatic discharge. And yet these employers allow workers to use the very products they make while they are on their lunch break. I wonder if they'll take away their cellphones next.

6 comments on “Clueless in China

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    September 17, 2012

    It also occurs to me that workers may use their cell phones to take pictures of products and then post them on the Web. What is stopping them from doing this? I nobody notices workers being recorded at work, who is going to notice the theft of trade secrets? You are right–the very technology that enables positive uses — such as flagging abuse — are also a vehicle for the negative. Case in point: the video that supposedly has set off protests in the Far East. Where does one draw the line? Can you draw the line?

  2. Nemos
    September 17, 2012

    When I read stories like this really I don't know what should I say and what should I write. Words sometimes are inadequate to describe the feelings …

    I want to ask the supervisors, the CIO and the managers of all those factories “How much more you earn because you apply all those policies against “your” workers How much ?


  3. bolaji ojo
    September 17, 2012

    What I find most puzzling is the fact that many OEMs in China continue to pursue practices that labor and human right activists have criticized in their rivals. Apple was one of the major targets, if not the main target, of activists for the last couple of years and yet even as the company tried to change its operations and sanitize practices at its contract manufacturer, the rest of the field somehow felt the same criticisms wouldn't be leveled at them.

    September 18, 2012

    I suppose it boils down to how much we are willing to pay for our gadgets.  I would still rather pay more in the knowledge that everyone in the supply chain was treated fairly.  I wonder if it will ever change?

  5. stochastic excursion
    September 18, 2012

    I'm wary of incomplete information provided by groups like China Labor Watch that seem to have privileged access, and also reports that target a single company for practices that are undoubtedly industry-wide.  What underlies all this is the race-to-the-bottom mentality that was sold to the American public as raising the global standard of living,, but in reality is more about gutting safeguards on decent working conditions.

  6. bolaji ojo
    September 19, 2012

    I don't see the situation changing because it's not set up to be altruistic. People go for what they can get now and executives manage for the sales growth and incomes they can show for specific quarters. As a result, it shouldn't be a surprise to see companies squeezing suppliers, contractors and employees to improve operating performance and as long as the folks next door are doing it to raise their market share everyone will do it too. It's the nature of capitalism.

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