Woes Continue in China for an Apple Parts Manufacturer

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Apple products are so popular in China that a riot broke out in early May when the new iPad 2 was first sold in a Beijing store. But Foxconn, one of its biggest parts manufacturers operating in China, has suffered a far more turbulent year. In the latest of the Taiwan-run company’s ongoing labor woes, three workers were killed and 15 others were injured during a factory explosion on May 20 in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu. A spokesperson for the electronic-parts manufacturer, which assembles iPad 2s at the Chengdu plant, said that the blast was caused by “combustible dust in a duct” of a polishing workshop.

Foxconn is run by Taiwanese billionaire Terry Gou, who flew to Chengdu after the blast occurred. The company has been plagued by problems in recent months, even as it expands at a blistering pace to keep up with demand from Apple, Nokia and Sony, among other tech firms. Last year, a high-profile string of a dozen or so worker suicides spurred the parts maker to announce measures to improve worker conditions. Foxconn says it raised wages, hired counselors and even held a carnival themed “cherish life, love family” at the Shenzhen facility, where workers had thrown themselves off rooftops. Building nets have also been installed to catch employees tempted to end their lives.But in early May, a Hong Kong-based watchdog group called Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) published a report on Foxconn based on interviews with workers at plants in three areas this spring—months after Apple and Foxconn vowed to reform its working environment. SACOM alleges that some workers were not paid promised wages, while others were vocational students who were allegedly compelled to spend internships needed for graduation laboring for Foxconn. National limits on overtime were regularly flouted, said the labor watchdog, even as exhausted workers had to sign pacts promising not to commit suicide. The report also questioned industrial safety standards at Foxconn. (The SACOM allegations follow another damning NGO report from a consortium of Chinese environmental groups released earlier this year, which accused another Apple parts manufacturer in China called Wintek of exposing workers making touch screens to toxic materials.)

In some ways, Foxconn’s troubles aren’t surprising given the sheer number of people the company employs. With around 1 million workers scattered across China, Foxconn runs factory complexes that are so large as to resemble mid-sized towns. For instance, the Chengdu factory, where the explosion occurred, is supposed to employ 100,000 people at full capacity. As with other manufacturers operating in China, Foxconn has many employees living in company dormitories. Consequently, workers spend their lives shuttling between crowded dorms and factories. Most of Foxconn’s employees are young; recruitment campaigns for the company appear to show a preference for female workers.

Before the explosion, Foxconn estimated that the $2 billion Chengdu factory would assemble 40 million Ipads this year and would go on to churn out 100 million tablet computers in 2013. When the massive plant was opened last October, Foxconn lauded the fact that it took only 76 days to construct. The company’s reaction to the blast has been rather less efficient. Families of workers at the plant have demanded the names of those killed and injured in the explosion but say they have received no information, according to Chinese media. Meanwhile, Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, reported that one of its journalists who was on the scene shortly after the blast had his camera seized by uniformed officials who then smashed his video recorder. Both Foxconn and Apple have expressed regret for the explosion. Yet so far the reaction on the ground feels more like an old-style communist lockdown and less like the modern, worker-friendly reforms promised by two of the world’s most successful companies.