[Tech in Asia] US’s CECC Holds Hearing on Chinese Workers’ Rights, Apple and VTech Criticized
The United States's Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) - chaired by congressman Chris Smith and senator Sherrod Brown - held a hearing today to discuss workers' rights in Chinese factories. It's a topic that we've discussed before, and one that hits home for most people interested in technology, since many of our high-tech gadgets are manufactured in Chinese factories. So how bad is the situation? To hear the selectively-chosen speakers in this afternoon's session, pretty bad.
Longtime congressional testimony veteran Harry Wu began his testimony with a probably-apocryphal story about a Motorola CEO who spoke to then-Chinese premier Zhu Rongji about setting up a factory in China. "I just hope that the Chinese workers don't form a union," says the CEO. "So do I!" replied the Chinese premier. That pretty much sums up how the hearing went. Rep. Smith and Senator Brown were especially harsh in criticizing the Chinese government's role in China's labor problems, but many of the panelists stressed that multi-national corporations - especially highly profitable tech companies that make their gadgets in China - are also a big part of the problem.
Charles Kernaghan, the executive director at the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights kicked off the first panel with a discussion of a factory of VTech's. VTech, if you're not aware, makes tons of cordless phones in addition to electronic learning tools and other gadgets. According to Kernaghan, VTech workers make 15.5 times less than their American counterparts, which is why nearly all cordless phones are made in China these days. Workers at VTech, Kernaghan says, work twelve or more hours a day, for around 80 hours a week plus as many as 37 additional hours of overtime. He described the pace of work there as "relentless, furious, mind-numbing [and] exhausting," and said that the workers "feel like they're in prison." In photographs from inside the factory obtained by his organization, workers revealed food in company cafeterias that was literally rotten. Kernaghan said that 80 percent of workers "try to flee" at least once over the course of the year, but they are generally kept from leaving by the unpaid back-wages that management holds over their heads, suggesting they will forfeit it if they go. Fellow panelist Li Qiang of China Labor Watch said later in the hearing that the working conditions at VTech described above "do exist in most plants and most factories throughout China."
Kernaghan stressed that "nothing will change in the global economy without enforceable labor rights" and said that it was at least partially the responsibility of corporations like VTech andApple to push for workers' rights in China.
But are Apple and other multi-nationals really trying to implement labor reform? The hiring of third-party auditing firms to conduct inspections of Chinese factories has often been cited as evidence that foreign firms are trying to uphold international standards, but Li Qiang said his organization had uncovered "strong evidence" of corruption in some of these audit programs. In one example, inspectors were paid to "overlook" certain violations in their report while stressing areas where violations didn't occur. "Audit reports would be made of of facts, but of course, they ignore some of the facts," said Li.
As for Apple, Li singled the company out as one that has the opportunity to really make a change in China's labor situation if it chooses to do so. Apple CEO Tim Cook's yearly salary is roughly equivalent to the yearly salary of 300,000 supply-chain workers, and Apple's yearly profits are equivalent to more than a hundred years of salary for those same 300,000 workers, says Li. "Corporations like Apple do have the resources to change the conditions, and I think we should start with Apple to change the conditions on the ground."