Frustrated Workers Stop iPhone 5 Line in Foxconn Factory Rebellion
Chinese workers at one factory reportedly were suffering so much abuse on iPhone 5 production lines they walked off the job for several hours on Friday. If this were an isolated incident, it might soon blow over -- but reports of Chinese laborers being treated inhumanely so that Americans can have the latest shiny iToy are becoming common enough to cause a real problem for Apple.
10/08/12 1:17 PM PT
Workers at Foxconn's factory in Zhengzhou, China, went on strike on Friday after managers imposed strict production demands for the iPhone 5 without corresponding worker training, according to China Labor Watch. Frustrations mounted among the workers as they turned out products that did not meet the standards, leading the company to place even more time pressure on the workers. In addition, workers were not given time off for a national holiday at the start of October.
Some of the workers were beaten multiple times, China Labor Watch also reported.
The strike lasted several hours, largely impacting the quality control line for the iPhone 5. At its peak, the strike involved three-to-four thousand production workers, China Labor Watch said.
Another Bad Apple Controversy
Apple and its contract manufacturer, Foxconn, are no strangers to controversy over working conditions at the factories -- nor, for that matter, over the production requirements of the iPhone 5. Last month, for example, Foxconn was forcing vocational students to work on assembly lines to produce iPhones, according to reports that surfaced in Chinese media. Foxconn denied that allegation. There have been numerous other claims -- and counters. Indeed, Foxconn is now under an international microscope, given its size and noted customer base.
To its credit, Foxconn has been making progress in creating safer and fairer working conditions, the Fair Labor Association recently reported. Among its findings: Foxconn reduced workers' hours to fewer than 60 per week, including overtime, which is in line with Chinese regulations. It also has been enforcing ergonomic breaks and strengthening equipment designed to protect against injury.
A List of Damages
Stepping up its improvements in conditions would likely benefit not only Foxconn, but also its famous customer -- even just considering the issue purely from a business standpoint and not a humanitarian one. The production schedule for the much-in-demand iPhone 5 is clearly tight, and neither company can afford such disruptions, Donald C. Dowling, Jr., a partner at White & Case, told MacNewsWorld.
Work stoppages will force Foxconn "to miss contractual delivery deadlines, causing product shortages or new product rollout delays for Apple," he said.
For Apple, the news of the strike will obviously bring more bad publicity -- somewhat negating the great effort Apple has been making to show its commitment to social responsibility, Dowling pointed out.
It may be that Apple will feel the production disruption more keenly, given the public's willingness to dismiss such reports after an initial burst of concern.
It's not that news of worker mistreatment is met with complete indifference by the American public -- but there have been so many that consumers are becoming immune, David Johnson, principal with Strategic Vision, told MacNewWorld.
Also, it is human nature to focus on the suffering of an individual as opposed to a group, he added. What groups like China Labor Watch need to do, from a PR perspective, is find one symbol or image around which consumers can rally for these reports to really hit home.
What to Do?
Both Apple and the disgruntled workers could pursue other choices, Dowling said, though he admitted they're not likely to do so.
If Foxconn should violate Apple's supplier code of conduct, Apple could simply stop using Foxconn -- but that would cause huge supply problems for Apple, he noted.
Another option would be to use the court system, said Dowling. A class of Chinese workers created and represented by U.S. plaintiff lawyers might try to sue Apple in the U.S. for "alien tort claims" or breach of Apple's code of conduct.
"Those claims would mean lots of bad publicity for Apple," he noted, "but at the end of the day Apple would likely win in U.S. court.
As for the Chinese court system, forget it, said Dowling. "Chinese workers could not bring any viable suit against Apple in a Chinese labor court -- Apple need not worry about Chinese labor courts."
Apple and Foxconn did not respond to our requests to comment for this story.