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Foxconn audit finds ‘serious’ violations of China labor laws

Apple Inc. via REUTERS

Tim Cook (center), chief executive of Apple, visited a Foxconn plant Wednesday in Zhengzhou, China. Apple and Foxconn are promising better conditions for workers.

NEW YORK - Foxconn, which manufactures more than 40 percent of the world’s electronics for such companies as Apple, Dell, and Amazon, has pledged to sharply curtail the number of working hours at its Chinese factories and significantly increase wages, a move that could improve working conditions across China.

The shift comes after a far-ranging inspection by the Fair Labor Association, a monitoring group, found widespread problems - including numerous instances where Foxconn violated Chinese law and industry codes of conduct by having employees work more than 60 hours a week and sometimes for 11 or more days in a row.

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The monitoring group, which in recent weeks surveyed more than 35,000 Foxconn employees and inspected three large facilities where Apple products are made, also found that 43 percent of workers surveyed had experienced or witnessed accidents, and almost two-thirds said their compensation “does not meet their basic needs.’’ Many said the unions available to them did “not provide true worker representation.’’

“There’s this lingering sense among workers that they’re in a dangerous place,’’ said Auret van Heerden, chief executive of the association. But Foxconn has “reached a tipping point. They have publicly promised to make changes in a manner that they will have to deliver on it.’’

Apple, which recently joined the association, had asked it to investigate plants manufacturing iPhones, iPads, and other devices. A growing outcry over conditions at overseas factories has prompted protests and petitions, and several labor rights organizations have started scrutinizing Apple’s suppliers. This week, advocacy groups sent Apple an open letter calling on it to “ensure decent working conditions at all its suppliers.’’

Since January, Apple has released a list of 156 of its suppliers - which it had previously declined to identify - and has begun posting regular monitoring reports on hours worked by factory employees. Apple, which has regularly audited its suppliers since 2006, said, “We share the F.L.A.’s goal of improving lives and raising the bar for manufacturing companies everywhere.’’

Foxconn is China’s largest and most prominent private employer, with 1.2 million workers, and although the Fair Labor Association’s investigation was limited to Apple factories, the shifts announced Thursday have the potential to increase wages and improve working conditions across Foxconn, which also manufactures products for hundreds of other brands, and at non-Foxconn plants in China.

“We are committed to work with Apple to carry out the remediation program, developed by both our companies,’’ Foxconn said. Apple said it fully supported the monitoring group’s recommendations.

“We think empowering workers and helping them understand their rights is essential,’’ its statement said.

Foxconn’s promises include a commitment that by July 2013 no worker will labor for more than 49 hours a week - the limit dictated by Chinese law. Foxconn, headquartered in Taiwan and controlled by billionaire Terry Gou, has also pledged that salaries will not decline. Such promises will most likely require Foxconn to hire tens of thousands of new employees as well as raise wages, steps that could cost it hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Those moves, in turn, are likely to influence the prices paid by Foxconn’s customers and could increase the retail cost of consumer products unless Apple and others accept lower profit margins.

This is not the first time independent monitors have criticized Foxconn or that change has been promised. In 2006, when problems at Foxconn factories surfaced, Apple engaged Verite, another monitoring group. Foxconn “has enacted a policy change to enforce the weekly overtime limits set by our code of conduct,’’ Apple wrote at that time. Last year, Apple said “reducing excessive overtime is a top priority’’ in 2012. Earlier this year, it began tracking 110 facilities where violations were common.

“It is not news that Apple and Foxconn are promising to end labor rights abuses,’’ said Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium. “They have been promising to do that since 2006. And they have not delivered. I hope this time will be different.’’

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