WASHINGTON -- A U.S.-based labor watchdog group says it has uncovered disturbing working conditions inside a Chinese factory producing parts for our favorite electronic gadgets.
According to a new report from the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, workers at the Zhen Ding Technology Holding factory in Shenzhen, China, are pressured into working 65-hour weeks, made to sleep on plywood beds in bleak dormitories and harassed by the facility’s security force. The work is so exhausting that some of the estimated 15,000 workers choose to sleep through their lunch breaks instead of eating, the report states.
Zhen Ding supplies circuit boards for Apple iPhones and iPads, among other electronics.
“The production goal increases every day,” the report quotes one worker as saying. “Today we met the production goal, and then it goes up tomorrow. It goes up until we can’t finish the job.”
After viewing the report, an Apple spokesman told The Huffington Post that the company was already aware of problems at the factory due to previous annual audits. Apple put Zhen Ding on probation earlier this year after discovering it had doctored payroll records to hide excessive overtime. Such falsification is "a core violation of our Supplier Code of Conduct -- the most serious breach of compliance," the spokesman said. Though Zhen Ding may still be producing parts for Apple, the company won't be eligible for new orders until it proves its payroll records are legitimate.
Apple also discovered through audits that Zhen Ding was forcing workers to take part in unpaid meetings outside of their shifts, and has ordered the manufacturer to start compensating workers for that time, according to the spokesman.
"Apple is committed to ensuring safe and fair working conditions throughout our supply chain," the spokesman said in an emailed statement. "We drive compliance with our code of conduct through far-reaching audits, transparent reporting and a strong respect for human rights that is central to the way we do business."
According to Apple, manufacturers who step afoul of the supplier code of conduct are pressured to come into compliance, under the threat of lost business. Apple sets a maximum workweek of 60 hours within its supply chain, and according to the company, its suppliers hit 95 percent compliance on the overtime standard last year.
Management at the Taiwan-based Zhen Ding could not be reached for comment on the allegations in the report, or on the violations cited by Apple. The phone at the company's U.S. office went unanswered Monday, as did an email sent to its Taiwan headquarters.
Apple added that it plans to investigate other charges in the report, including the allegation that toxic water is being discharged from the facility into an adjacent river. The company's Clean Water Program is dedicated to investigating matters like this, and Apple noted it has found no evidence so far that Zhen Ding is dumping toxic wastewater into the river.
The report also names Amazon as a recipient of Zhen Ding parts for its Kindle, an assertion HuffPost couldn't independently verify. Unlike Apple, which has the Zhen Ding facility listed with hundreds of others on its supplier responsibility web page, Amazon does not appear to publicly disclose the factories that produce parts for its e-reader. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
The report on Zhen Ding was written by Charles Kernaghan, the director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights and a longtime crusader against sweatshop labor. He is best known as the man who humiliated Kathy Lee Gifford by revealing the working conditions inside the overseas factories producing her clothing line in the 1990s.
Kernaghan told HuffPost that the interviews with workers quoted in the Zhen Ding report were conducted by Chinese labor activists who must remain anonymous for their safety. The report includes photos purportedly taken inside the factory, which, according to Kernaghan, is against management’s rules.
One of the photos, shown above, depicts three workers apparently sleeping at a pair of tables, heads in hands, while on a break.
“It has to be a really hard life,” Kernaghan said of working in the factory. “They know they’re being robbed and they know they’re going nowhere. They just don’t have any way to fight back.”
Several recent investigations by news outlets and labor watchdogs have scrutinized the working conditions in Apple's overseas supply chain. In 2012, The New York Times reported on the "human costs" behind the iPad, highlighting the poor conditions at the Foxconn facilities, the massive network of factories where hundreds of thousands of workers produce parts for electronics. The Times found that Foxconn laborers worked excessive overtime, lived in poorly maintained dorms and faced industrial hazards. Such conditions, the report noted, have also been found at the plants that make parts for other major electronics companies, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Motorola, Nokia and Sony.
According to Kernaghan’s report, workers at the Zhen Ding factory are squeezed by ever-rising production goals set by their bosses. The study says that managers instituted a concept known as the “354 Movement”: Three workers do the work of five people, and receive the equivalent of four workers’ wages. The system is considered a win-win for both the company and the workers.
“It all sounds nice. Three workers get paid for four people’s salary,” the report quotes a worker saying. “But think about it: How do three people meet the production of what five people must do? … Who gets the money that was supposed to be for the fifth worker?”
Another worker said that the production quotas leave him without enough time to use the bathroom, lest his circuit boards start piling up on the assembly line. Such an infraction could hurt his bonus and cost him overtime opportunities, the man said.
Several workers told researchers they’d been assured they would receive free lunches in the cafeteria as part of the job, only to learn later they would have to pay for them. Workers also said management took routine deductions from their paychecks to cover clothing, safety gear and health exams.
“The American people are buying these phones, which are great phones, but they know nothing about how this stuff is made and who made it, what did they endure, and were they treated with any dignity,” Kernaghan said. “Apple is riding their growth here. Meanwhile, the workers who’ve made these circuit boards are the big losers."
This post has been updated to include further detail about Apple's investigation of Zhen Ding potentially discharging toxic water into a nearby river.