Sunday, May 30, 2010

China's press is open to labor problems, especially those of foreign firms

Why is China’s Party/government currently allowing so much press coverage of all the labor troubles of foreign business'?

That question nagged at me often in the past few days as I followed the spate of suicides at Foxcomm, mass producer of iPads and other electronic gadgets for export. (See previous article.) Finally, I emailed my query to a friend of mine, Anita Chan, author, editor, and professor at the China Research Center in Sydney.

My email reached Dr. Chan in Guangzhou, China, where she is researching China's auto industry. Here is her reply:

About these media reports on China's labor troubles in foreign factories, I do not see this as particular new. It is just the development of a trend in news reporting that goes back to the 1990s. The press in China has always been much freer in reporting on the dark side of labor issues than the American press on its own problems. You have to recognize the fact that many newspapers today are not "the mouthpiece of the state". Many young reporters go into factories under cover to report on labor conditions.

You may not want to accept it, but the management styles of non-PRC Asian companies (like Taiwanease-owned Foxconn) can be worse than the Chinese's own management style. Indeed, there are more serious violations in such factories that supply the global production chain than exist in Chinese state enterprises or big domestic enterprises. The massive layoffs in the late 1990s were a different matter. Besides layoffs is a different issue from low wages, long work hours, and an abusive shop floor culture. As a result one should not be surprised that there are more reports on the problems of such factories' than on local factories.

Among the workers themselves, if you read the blogs, there are also very strong anti-foreign feelings with nationalistic overtones. This is unfortunate because nationalism overshadows class awareness. Chinese workers, the Chinese reporters, and the Chinese authorities share a very similar nationalistic outlook.

Also in the case of Foxconn, workers are seen as victims. Nothing wrong about exposing them being victims as long as they do not rise up in protest against the government and demand to have an independent trade union, which in reality these Foxconn workers are not asking for anyway.
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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dying young: making gadgets for Apple, Motorola, HP, Dell, Nokia

Suicide can be viewed as the tip of an iceberg, an indicator of the quality of life and of broader problems, according to the OECD Factbook. By that standard, a huge factory in southern China may be the epicenter of broader human problems yet to be exposed.

In the five months before May 25, nine workers – all between 18 and 25 – committed suicide at the Shenzen plant of a Taiwan-owned multinational, Foxconn Technology Inc., a leading supplier of electronic goods with leading brand names.

But even before this May, Foxconn was the scene of repeated tragedy. On June 18, 2007, a 19-year old Hunan worker, was found hung to death in the toilet of her dormitory room. On January 16, 2009, a 25-year old worker jumped to his death from a 14th floor window. On July 16, 2009, a 25-year-old office worker, accused of losing one of 16 prototypes of Apple’s fourth generation iPhone, jumped to death from the 12th floor of his apartment building.

That list of Foxconn’s death toll is from “Dying Young: Suicide & China’s booming economy,” published May 25 by a Hong Kong-based NGO, Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), founded in 2005. From conversations outside Foxconn’s walls, the group found that most of the interviewed workers described the stress of work with examples like these:

-- They were not allowed to talk with others on the same production line, and so did not get to know their colleagues
-- Isolation from each other often extends even to those in the same dormitory, partly because of excessive overtime.
-- Even with overtime exceeding 100 hours a month, they could not afford to buy the products they make.
On the morning of May 25, representatives of SACOM and other NGOs staged a protest outside Foxconn’s headquarters in Hong Kong to express concerns over the suicides and to demand reforms, including payment of a living wage and permitting establishment of genuine worker organizations the factory.

Terry Guo, founder and chairman of Hon Hai, Foxconn’s parent company, rushed to Shenzen for a press conference on May 25. He urged the media not to misrepresent the situation at the factory.

“We are definitely not a sweatshop,” he insisted.

Maybe not in some legal definitions of the term. But it is a sweatshop in the sense experienced by Mr. Guo’s workers (and many millions of other working women and men around the world): a workplace that sweats the utmost out of its workers while giving them the very least in return, monetarily and otherwise. (GlobalPost has called them “silicon sweatshops.”)

SACOM’s Website documents that fact for Foxconn at An abbreviated version of “Dying Young” is available there, and contains the link to the full report, which runs 11 pages, including endnotes.

Foxconn is a member of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), whose members pledge to uphold high labor and social standards.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

My flawed Apple from China

I ordered an Apple iPod one day last week. It arrived in a neat package three and a half days later. It bore no mark of its geographic origin but Apple’s tracking chart told me it came from Shenzhen, China.

Shenzhen, a booming province near Hong Kong, is the home of a huge factory owned by a Taiwanese multinational, Foxconn Electronics Inc. Its workers, estimated to number 300,000, turn out products for the world’s leading phone and computer companies. Apple is among them.

About the time I was ordering the iPod, a 24-year-old worker surnamed Chu plunged to her death in a fall from a Foxconn dormitory. According to wire service reports, Chu became the seventh worker in the Foxconn Shenzhen plant to die in similar falls within a year. All apparently suicides, all driven by the extreme pressures of six- and seven-day workweeks.

As I get acquainted with my new acquisition, a refurbished Touch iPod, I marvel at its technology, but with a gnawing feeling of guilt for acquiring it.

Its cost, $149, made only a very tiny contribution to the $6,000,000,000 or so in merchandise that China is exporting to the United States every week. But how badly do I really need it? And how hard did the likes of Ms. Chu work to have a stock of refurbished iPods on hand so that I could have one in three and a half days? Read more!

Monday, May 17, 2010

‘The fight against child labor must be rekindled’

The concern about child labor has waned over the last six or seven years, and “must be rekindled.” That’s the judgment of Kailash Satyarti of India, chair of the Global March against Child Labor, which he founded in 1998.

Satyarti expressed his views in an interview published on-line by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Here are excerprts from his answers to questions by Samuel Grumlau.

The Global March site in 2006 estimated the number of child workers in India at 65,000,000. Does that figure still apply?

I think it has fallen. I do not trust the government statistics claiming that there are “only” 10,000,000 to 12,000,000 Indian children not attending school. The truth is that no one has clear statistics, but the number has fallen, perhaps by 15 to 20%. This is largely thanks to a rapid change in mentality among the Indian population. The middle classes now see child labor in a negative light. There is a sense of guilt, for example, if someone uses a child domestic. There are, of course, people who exploit children in the worst forms of child labor, included in the middle classes, but there has been a significant change.

There is also a growing demand for quality education. Even the poorest of the poor have started to realize the value of education. In the past, they thought that education only served career interests, but now they realize that it also contributes to their development, their personal fulfillment.

One factor contributing to this change is the remarkable development of the information and communication technologies sector over the last 10 to 15 years in India. Even the poorest villagers have a mobile phone, as does their relative working as a rickshaw puller in a faraway city. They can keep in almost daily contact whereas before, correspondence by mail would take weeks. A person working in Mumbai or Delhi can therefore keep in touch with his family, tell them what he sees, the changes in India and in the cities. Little by little, they come to realize that if their children were educated, they would have a better chance at prosperity and personal growth.

There have also been major political changes, with the rise to power of the Dalits, the lowest caste. Many members of the lower castes are ministers, and no party can afford to ignore the problems facing these castes. This rise has created new aspirations, a desire among the members of these castes to have the same lifestyle as other Indians, and education is the key to reaching this goal. As a result, more and more poor people, Dalits, are sending their children to the schools in the villages, including their daughters, who used to be the most discriminated against.

Is the impact of taking children out of work as strong and as rapid as expected on adult employment or pay?

Adults do benefit in terms of employment in the long run. The carpet industry offers a good example. Fifteen years back, at least a million children in South Asia were employed full time in this sector: at least 300 to 350,000 in India, at least 250 to 300,000 in Nepal, and almost 400,000 in Pakistan. Now, all the research on the subject sets the figure at below 300,000 in the three countries. So, 700,000 children have been taken out of this sector.

It is the result of the raids led by [non-governmental] organizations to free children, the existence of the RugMark label, the growing demand for education among the Indian population, and the government's efforts in favor of schooling, and so forth.

The World Cup is starting on 11 June in South Africa. Is the Global March holding a campaign on this subject, as it did previously?

Yes. One of the big problems is the employment of children in the manufacture of hundreds of products used during this event: clothing, souvenirs, nets, drinks, etc. We demand guarantees against the use of child labor in these sectors. All lot of attention was given during previous World Cups to the manufacture of the footballs used during the matches, and FIFA made a number of commitments, but that is not enough: although child labor may not be used in the production of the footballs used during big games, there are still children making the footballs sold thanks to all the fervor stirred up by events such as the World Cup.

(Read the new eight-page “Union View” report on the trade union fight against child labor at
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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Aiming for a trade agreement that breaks with the past

It’s time for the next trade agreement to be a “21st century agreement.” That’s the advice that top union leaders from seven Pacific rim nations have for seven trade ministers who have started negotiating an unusual trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agrement (TPPTA).

In their May 10 letter the labor leaders, including President Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, urged the seven trade ministers, including Ronald Kirk of the United States, “to break from past practice and negotiate in a more open, transparent, and participatory manner.”

Toward that end, the union leaders recommended the creation of a joint TPPTA Website that would convey a full range of information about the on-going negotiations, including “white papers, draft texts, offers and counter-offers, press statements, and declarations.”

Access to the Website, and posting on it, would not be limited to the government side, but would “allow civil society to post documents (analysis, proposals, etc.) relevant to the negotiations by topic or by country.”

Another proposal is to establish “side rooms” (apart from the negotiating venue) “where accredited civil society representatives could be briefed from time to time during negotiations’ and where those representatives could also present their views.

“Consultation must also be on-going,” the union letter emphasized. “Throughout the negotiation process, governments must establish regular channels to ensure [that] civil society, including unions and employers, are able to meaningfully engaged in the negotiating process.”

Generally, such consultations have been routinely granted only to employer representatives – a point that the letter did not make.

In its final paragraph, the letter warned: “Without implementing at least these measures, any final agreement cannot count on broad civil society support.” Translation: the agreement won’t fly if employers are its only supporters.

The first round of TPPTA talks took place in Melbourne, Australia, in mid-March. The next round is scheduled in June in the United States.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

‘Unseemly of me to go to China’: prominent Australian writer

In protesting against a new wave of repression in China. Frank Moorhouse (left), an acclaimed Australian journalist and writer, withdrew from an Australian government-sponsored tour of China

“Because I had been so vocal about freedom of expression in my own country, which involved no risk, and had been publicly recognized for it,” Moorhouse explained, “I felt it would be unseemly of me to go to China, to be feted and to remain silent while Chinese writers were being sent to jail.”

Moorhouse’s decision, made in January, was widely publicized in Australia. In the United States, Jeff Ballinger, noted for his “Press for Change” activism, circulated excerots frin Moorhouse’s letter by email on May 5, under the heading “all-too-rare individual – ‘unseemly of me to go to China’.”
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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Danger: Children legally at work in American agriculture

“The United States is a developing country when it comes to child farmworkers,” says Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

Boys and girls as young as 12 legally work for hire on U.S. farms for 10 or more hours a day, five to seven days a week, according to a new Human Rights Watch study, which Coursen-Neff co-authored.

Human Rights Watch has called upon Congress to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to end discrimination against child farmworkers. In other occupations, the law prohibits the employment of children under 14, and limits children under 16 to three hours of work a day when school is in session.

Although agriculture is the most dangerous work open to children in the United States, federal law allows 16 and 17-year-olds to work under hazardous conditions in agriculture; in all other occupations the minimum age for hazardous work is 18.

In September last year Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of California introduced Children’s Act for Responsible Employment. It has gained more than 60 co-sponsored, as well as the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and other organizations, but remains bogged down in Congress.

The May 5 Human Rights Watch report sparked an unusual amount of media interest. The AP story on it was picked up by 189 outlets within two days.

On May 10 to ll the United States joins 80 other countries at a global child labor conference hosted by the Dutch government in the Hague. A goal of the conference is to improve enforcement of the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labor convention, which the U.S. government sponsored and ratified.

Will the Obama administration take on the corporate agriculture lobby to end a glaring contradiction in U.S. policy?"
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