Silicon Sweatshops: The China connection

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[Editor’s note: Silicon Sweatshops is a five-part investigation of the supply chains that produce many of the world’s most popular technology products, from Apple iPhones, to Nokia cell phones, Dell keyboards and more. The series examines the scope of the problem, including its effects on workers from the Philippines, Taiwan and China. It also looks at a novel factory program that may be a blueprint for solving this perennial industry problem.]

DONGGUAN, China — Months after a massive strike halted assembly lines at an electronics firm here in southern China, the factory's workers are fatalistic.

"Even after the strike, nothing gets better," said a shaggy-haired, 25-year-old from Hubei province who's worked at the factory, Dongguan Masstop, for a year and a half. "Conditions are still very bad. The food gets worse and worse. And every time I see my supervisor, I tell him it's too hot at my work station."

"It's depressing, because nothing ever changes," he said.

After several months of plunging profits, the electronics components maker Dongguan Masstop — a fully owned subsidiary of Taiwan's Wintek — told workers in February that their overtime pay rate would be slashed as a cost-cutting measure, labor groups said. Activists said that managers cut workers' salaries without negotiating with them first.

Wintek insists it got approval for this measure from the local government and an "employee representative meeting," according to the company's statement.

Workers rejected the pay cut and took several other gripes to management, including bad food and unsanitary dining conditions. (See the blog of one Dongguan Masstop worker, in simplified Chinese.) According to the Hong Kong-based labor rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), 100 workers were hospitalized with food poisoning in March as a result of unhealthy conditions.

Seeing no improvement, the workers went on strike in April. Most returned to the lines when the firm agreed to keep their overtime pay rate untouched. Activists said 19 workers who continued to strike were laid off.

Complex and murky

Wintek has supplied Apple, Nokia and other top brands, according to eight current and former employees, labor rights groups and industry analysts. (Nokia confirmed that Wintek is a supplier; Apple said it does not confirm supplier relationships.) Dongguan Masstop is one of the Wintek group's key factories in China.

Three workers spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing they'd be punished for complaining about their employer.
(Sharron Lovell/GlobalPost)

But Masstop's exact relationship with global electronics brands is unclear. Workers at Dongguan Masstop don't even know who exactly they're making components for. Both Apple and Nokia insist none of their parts or products come out of this specific factory, which has been the target of relentless criticism from labor rights groups since April.

Jenny Chan, formerly with SACOM, said her group has heard from workers that Wintek was handling rush orders from Apple at the time of the troubles in April. "We think they also got the Dongguan facility to do some part," said Chan. SACOM also says Nokia visited the factory in September on an inspection tour, as a potential customer (Nokia had no comment).

Wintek has production lines in Taiwan, China and India, said Chan, and can move orders around as needed. So when Nokia disassociated itself from the Dongguan Masstop factory in conversations with SACOM about conditions there, Chan urged the firm to take a broader view of its corporate responsibility.

"Their excuse was that at the Dongguan factory, none of the assembly lines are directly related to Nokia," said Chan. "But next month, Wintek could redistribute orders, so we said, 'Don't be so short-sighted.'"

GlobalPost interviewed three Dongguan Masstop workers near the factory, in this gritty manufacturing hub. Inside, some 10,000 workers — mostly young migrants from far-flung Chinese provinces — toil around the clock making electronic components.

Welcome to go-go China

The workers are chasing a dream of upward mobility in the go-go factory towns of southern China. It's a way to earn a pile of cash before they return to the provinces. And for the lucky, it can be a stepping-stone into China's rapidly growing middle class.

The three young workers spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing they'd be fired or punished for complaining. They said the factory's treatment of its workers hasn't improved since April, and may even be getting worse.

"Working conditions in the factory haven't changed at all," since the strike, said a 19-year-old woman from Hunan Province with a springy, wedge haircut who has worked at the factory for three years.

If the workers complaints' are correct, the factory is violating one key electronics industry group's code of conduct, and possibly Chinese labor laws.

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition includes most major electronics brands. Its code of conduct says workers should get at least one day off every seven days, and only work more than 60 hours a week in "emergency or unusual" circumstances. It also bans pre-employment tests that could discriminate against some potential workers.

Dongguan Masstop workers said they clock 70-hour weeks — 10-hour shifts every day of the week, making from $235 to $366 a month, which comes out to as little as 83 cents per hour.

The 25-year-old from Hubei said his last day off had been nearly three weeks before, and only because he started working the night shift. "Before that, I can't remember my last day off," he said.

All three believe they were tested for Hepatitis B, a common pre-employment procedure in southern China factories. The test can lead to discrimination against carriers of the disease, even though it's not transmittable in casual contact.

All three said the factory employs under-aged workers, though they couldn't offer proof. They say labor shortages in the south are now making child labor more common. "Many factories have workers that are too young, especially the places that have trouble recruiting," said a 21-year-old female worker from Hubei. It's routine in Dongguan to get fake or borrowed documents to change one's age.

"There's a boy from my hometown who is so thin and small, I knew he couldn't be more than 14," said the young man from Hubei. "I asked, and he said that he hadn't finished middle school."

The workers said Dongguan Masstop put up a notice saying Nokia was coming on an inspection tour. While there was no specific "coaching" or threats, the three said that the notice was a tacit message to workers to keep their mouths shut.

"We weren't told exactly [what to say] by our bosses, but we know what we're supposed to say to Nokia and the others," said the young man. "It's common knowledge what you can and can't say."

And when the factory's big customers do come in to interview workers about conditions, their Taiwanese bosses sit next to them, the workers said.

Wintek declined to comment on any of these specific allegations by workers, which were emailed to the company. "The activities of each company in the Wintek Group are conducted in accordance with local laws and regulations," said Wintek Vice President James Chen, in an email.

"We also take care to fulfill our corporate social responsibilities and to ensure a comfortable, healthy and safe environment for our employees. We keep good communication with our employees to make sure their rights and interests under legal requirement are guaranteed."

[Next in the series: A promising model. How one U.S. high-tech firm is taking a creative approach to the problem.]

Silicon Sweatshops: The series

Special Report: Silicon Sweatshops

Shattered dreams

Disposable workforce

The China connection

A promising model