After the initial reports of the riot at an Apple assembling factory in China, did you think it all went quiet on the story? I did, because I read lots of Apple sites every day. They almost all stopped reporting on it.
Of course, the new iPhone 5 came out around the same time, and that took the attention of the Apple watch sites. Luckily, other more general news agencies carried on reporting.
The campus where the riot occurred is used by 79,000 workers in Taiyuan, in the northern Shanxi province of China. There was considerable damage caused by a September 23rd clash between labourers from different provinces that left more than 40 people in hospital, and some say up to 10 deaths (Foxconn denied any fatalities). Investigators have since tried to determine the cause of the riot that had to be quelled by hundreds of security guards and police.
Security teams wearing riot helmets and wielding plastic shields marched around the Foxconn Technology Group factory the following day, after Foxconn had suspended production.
Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou has taken some moves in recent years to improve conditions at his factories after a spate of suicides and pressure from the company's largest customer: Apple Inc. But changes still haven't reached smaller locations such as Taiyuan, workers reportedly said, citing inferior food, poor sanitation and overcrowded dorms plus security guards who were young, poorly trained and too aggressive. Some said a guard struck a worker on the Sunday just before the riots broke out.
However, Foxconn officially downplayed the violence as an 'incident' and a 'personal dispute' despite the large number of workers involved, the extensive damage and the dozens of injuries that resulted, not to mention the suspension of work.
Terry Gou is the chairman of Foxconn's parent company Hon Hai, which he founded in 1974. It's a bit hard to take any assurances by Gou as very, well, reassuring when he reportedly compared the workers at his company to 'animals' at the turn of this year.
According to the report from Want China Times, Gou said "Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache." Gou compounded what was later claimed to be a 'mistranslation' by inviting the director of the Taipei Zoo to give a lecture to the executives assembled at the 2011 year-end meeting on 'how to manage animals'.
Before that, it was reported that Foxconn's extremely cynical move to curb suicides from its buildings' upper floors was to put up nets to catch anyone jumping. What a guy.
All I can say is, keep the pressure up. I personally feel very uneasy buying products tainted by third world labour conditions at supposedly super-high-tech factories. And before you aim all your guns at Apple, what are Samsung factories like? New York-based China Labour Watch said it had evidence of long working hours, under-age workers and poor conditions in eight Samsung factories, as reported by the BBC and other agencies. Six of the eight factories were Samsung-owned and two were suppliers to the company. Unlike Apple, Samsung had not (by September 6th) agreed to checks from independent third-parties.
Apple seemingly paid a lot more attention to ecological concerns once Greenpeace had a serious go at them. White plastic disappeared from the Mac range, among other changes to aid recycling, and recently Apple has been adding solar panels to its power-sucking server farm.
Apple CEO Tim Cook took the step of actually going to a Foxconn plant to see what was going on for himself. Indeed, Foxconn is increasingly sensitive to the issue ... or at last to the criticism. A statement recently said the company will "ensure its duties relating to employee welfare are implemented and it will make overtime payments as promised," according to a Digitimes report. Overtime was one of the serious issues workers had at the Taiyuan plant.
The New York Times has more information about other labour unrest in China with many protests appearing related to the country's gradual economic slowdown. Employees are demanding the payment of overdue wages from financially struggling companies, or insisting on compensation when money-losing factories in coastal provinces are closed and moved to lower-cost cities in the interior. As they should.
Of course, China is in the rather bizarre position of having a command economy based on a 'workers' rights' philosophy while simultaneously embracing capitalist production techniques and the profits reaped.
Foxconn must be conscious of going too far and seriously upsetting its most high-profile client. For sure, it should be noted that Foxconn does not solely build Apple products; it's also is a key supplier to Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.
Tellingly, Foxconn stated the riot shouldn't affect shipments for "the latest smartphone product" since Taiyuan does not do any product assembly. An employee at the Taiyuan plant, however, said that iPhone components were made there - most Apple-related production appears to takes place in other parts of China, particularly in the Sichuan and Henan provinces.
The Shanghai Evening Post also begged to differ. The Post sent a reporter into the Foxconn factory in Taiyuan to pretend he was a new worker some time before the riot. His 10-day experience at the factory was then published as a diary.
The Taiyuan factory was already known for a workers' strike in March, in addition to needing 20,000 extra workers to fulfill orders from Apple for the new iPhone 5.
The SEP reporter went through an extensive seven-day orientation, which included a form that all workers had to sign stating there are no environmental hazards. He began to work on the production line for the iPhone 5 on day eight but was only able to hang in two more days due to the conditions.
To its credit, the Apple fan site Cult of Mac passed this on, including excerpts such as "...After such repeat action for several hours, I have terrible neckache and muscle pain on my arm ... We worked non-stop from midnight to the next morning 6am but were still asked to keep on working as the production line is based on running belt and no one is allowed to stop. I'm so starving and fully exhausted."
The reporter calculates he had to mark five iPhone 5 back plates every minute, minimum, non-stop for his entire shift. His goal was 3000 iPhone 5 back plates every five hours.
"The supervisor shouted out loud in front of us: 'Who wants to rest early at 5am!? We are all here to earn money! Let's work harder!' I was thinking who on earth wants to work two extra hours overtime for only a mere 27 yuan (USD$4)!?" Not me.
Apple has, so far, not commented on the Taiyuan riot. But while it might sound like a massive alteration for Apple to make, considering the financial resources the company has, changing assembler is simply not the same challenge it would be for many.
Foxconn, you'd better do something.