Apple's China Plants Still Face Union, Overtime Issues

Apple has taken some meaningful steps to improve working conditions at its Chinese factories, according to a progress report issued on Tuesday by a labor group. The report says that illegal overtime remains a problem at Foxconn plants, Apple's main supplier in China.

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Apple got something of a report card today. The Fair Labor Association released its latest review of working conditions at three plants in China. The plants are owned by Foxconn, and assemble iPhones and iPads. But an earlier report had put the Chinese company and Apple on notice.

NPR's Steve Henn has this update.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Apple and Foxconn invited the Fair Labor Association to inspect these plants this past winter. After interviewing thousands of workers who make Apple products and spending weeks at the plants, the FLA identified more than 300 problems. They ranged from inadequate anti-discrimination policies to an internship program that had little to do with teaching.

AURET VAN HEERDEN: Then there were a lot of health and safety issues.

HENN: Auret van Heerden is president of the FLA.

HEERDEN: And then the biggies are the changes to the hours of work and to the union elections.

HENN: Foxconn has an enormous union, but it's ineffective and workers see it as a tool of management. And while labor laws in China forbid employers from requiring more than 36 hours of overtime each month, this law is routinely ignored.

The FLA released its first report this spring. In response, Foxconn and Apple promised to improve working conditions, raise wages and eventually eliminate illegal overtime.

HEERDEN: We've had a lot of inquiries from companies wanting to know whether Foxconn is really going to do this and, if so, how they're going to manage to pull it off.

HENN: Today, the FLA laid out exactly how far Foxconn and Apple have come.

HEERDEN: They've been very vigorous in the way they've worked on this over the last three months.

HENN: Van Heerden's group worked with Apple and Foxconn to create a timeline for fixing the problems they found. Today, the FLA said Foxconn had already fixed more than half of them.

HEERDEN: They were not only up-to-date. They were, in fact, considerably ahead of schedule.

HENN: Some problems, like health and safety violations, were addressed immediately. Others, like reforming union elections and reducing illegal overtime, may take a year or two. In fact, van Heerden said workers themselves are pushing back against cuts to overtime.

HEERDEN: They would really like to work overtime because the overtime hours are paid at a premium rate.

HENN: So, to placate workers, Foxconn is raising wages and hiring more employees while it cuts hours. However, Foxconn is just one of hundreds of companies that help manufacture Apple products. And while van Heerden said the progress there was impressive, a lot of work remains to be done.

His group had planned to begin inspecting other companies in China that manufacture and assemble gadgets for Apple, but the work at Foxconn has been so time-consuming that efforts to expand inspections have been pushed back. Other groups want Apple to pay more attention to its entire supply chain, not just Foxconn.

Activists like Li Qiang at China Labor Watch say it's smaller factories at smaller companies that have the biggest problems. Linda Greer is at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says Apple deserves credit for cleaning up its supply chain, but it could be more proactive.

LINDA GREER: They are, after all, the biggest company in the world and extremely successful.

HENN: Still, today's report marked a rare moment when a global corporation could step back and take credit for making progress on a tough issue. Apple released a statement today saying, in part: Our teams remain committed to improving conditions for workers wherever Apple products are made.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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