By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
March 30, 2012

“Serious and pressing” problems of overtime, health and safety, low pay, worker rights

Labor rights activists feared the worst when Fair Labor Association president Auret van Heerden, inspecting a Chinese factory at Apple’s (AAPL) request, remarked how clean and tranquil he found it — as if a factory floor where workers are required to wear clean suits would look like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

“The facilities are first-class,” he told a Reuters reporter after his first day, “the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm.”

The activists need not have worried. The FLA issued its initial findings Thursday, and while it’s quite possible that there were problems it missed in its month-long investigation of three Foxconn factories — including interviews with 35,500 workers — it’s clear that the report is no whitewash. The FLA found more than four dozen violations of either its own codes or Chinese labor laws. Among the issues highlighted in the report:

  • All three factories exceeded the Chinese legal limits of 40 hours per week and a maximum of 36 hours overtime per month
  • Nearly half the workers said there were periods where they worked 11 days or more without a break
  • 64.3% of workers said that their salary ($356 per month at one factory) was not sufficient to cover their basic needs
  • Foxconn hired an average of 27,000 interns a month and often had them work both overtime and night shifts — a violation of their internship agreement
  • 14% of employees were not properly compensated for the overtime hours they had put in
  • Foxconn’s unions were largely ineffective, in part because a majority of the members of union committees were drawn from the ranks of management
  • The FLA assessors found machines at which sensors, hoods or barriers needed to be connected to automatic cut-out mechanisms to prevent workers from reaching into the machine
  • 43% of workers had either experienced or witnessed an accident

“We appreciate the work the FLA has done to assess conditions at Foxconn and we fully support their recommendations,” Apple said in a statement released Thursday afternoon.

“Talk is cheap,” said an otherwise supportive press release from Human Rights First, a member of the FLA Board of Directors. “The steps needed to protect workers in Apple’s supply chain may not be.”

A full copy of the FLA’ report is available here.

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