Lei Huang could be a poster child for China's laboring classes.
For each 60-hour week he works on an assembly line for Foxconn, a manufacturer of electronics and computer parts in this south China manufacturing hub, he earns $32 and a bunk in a dormitory room with 19 other laborers.
At the factory, managers forbid workers from talking or resting outside of two 10-minute breaks, he said.
Labor rights groups long have documented low pay and strict management in Chinese factories. But as Western firms increasingly move manufacturing to China to cut costs and raise profits, activists are adopting a strategy of publicizing conditions at globally recognized companies including Foxconn, which supplies dozens of international brands such as Apple Inc. from its Shenzhen facilities.
The goal is to pressure management to improve conditions.
A spokesman for Foxconn, the trade name of the Taiwanese-owned firm Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., was not available to comment on this story.
Last month, China Labor Watch, a New York-based watchdog group, issued a report that said several Chinese suppliers to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. routinely fail to pay wages and provide health insurance as required by Chinese law.
The survey of 16 Wal-Mart suppliers found that some pay as little as half the minimum daily wage, provide no health insurance or require mandatory overtime. One company provided only one bathroom for its 2,000 employees, the group said.
The report prompted Wal-Mart to investigate the factories, and auditors found instances of underage workers and violations of overtime laws, although not all of the companies mentioned in the report were "direct Wal-Mart suppliers," said Jonathan Dong, a Wal-Mart spokesman.
He said some products Wal-Mart sells are purchased from companies acting as distributors, complicating efforts to monitor labor conditions.
"The suppliers (with infractions) were put on our warning list, and there will be a rigorous auditing process to follow up," Dong said, adding that Wal-Mart had recently increased the number of unannounced audits it conducts worldwide.
Wages below government-mandated minimums — which are set by local officials and range from $45 to $101 a month — are common in Chinese factories, experts said.
A recent report by Verité Inc., a Massachusetts-based organization working to improve labor practices worldwide, found that "systemic problems in payment practices in Chinese export factories consistently rob workers of at least 15 percent of their pay."
Activists hope the growing focus on "shaming" well-known companies — publicizing conditions at their Chinese suppliers — could have a significant effect on labor standards in China, said Li Qiang, director of China Labor Watch.
China is the world's largest exporter and the largest single source of American imports. Factories in China shipped $163 billion worth of goods to the United States in 2005, 30 percent more than in 2004, according to the most recent data.
Because the Chinese government "is most concerned about economic growth" and has limited resources to investigate factories, "there is growing recognition among labor rights activists that the best way to make gains (in China's labor standards) is by publicly shaming well-known corporations," Li said.
That lesson was reinforced last summer after a series of news articles chronicled labor conditions at the Shenzhen factory run by Foxconn.
In June, London's Mail on Sunday newspaper ran a story documenting forced overtime and the use of corporal punishment, including having workers stand still for long periods and do push-ups in part of the factory that builds iPods for Apple.
The story prompted Chinese journalists to investigate conditions at the factory.
Apple responded quickly, sending inspectors to interview workers and study records.
In August, it said that although Foxconn complied with its supplier code of conduct in "the majority of areas audited," management had committed some violations, including disciplining workers by making them stand at attention, a practice Apple said it would ask Foxconn to discontinue.
Although Apple's auditors found that Foxconn paid at least the minimum wage, the audit report said that "the pay structure was unnecessarily complex" and that workers labored more than six consecutive days 25 percent of the time. Chinese law requires that workers have at least one day off each week.
To improve what Apple considered substandard dormitories, Foxconn committed to increasing "total living space" by 46 percent, the audit report stated, adding that Apple hired Verité to monitor compliance.
Foxconn is one of Dell Inc.'s larger suppliers, Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton said, adding that "Dell employs the highest standards for employee, environment and safety conditions in our own facilities, and we expect any supplier to employ the same standards."
All suppliers undergo a quarterly review, including an evaluation of working conditions, he said.
For activists, the public reprimand and Foxconn's commitment to improve practices were a rare victory.
"The Foxconn case was an example of how publicity can have a significant impact on labor practices," said Tai Ngai Lung, program coordinator for the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior.
"The lesson is that we have to make abuses very public."
Documenting labor abuses is hard, and many Chinese companies have become adept at hiding problems, experts said.
Many managers keep double sets of books — one for real and one to show auditors — and coach workers on how to respond if outsiders ask them about the factory.
During a recent factory audit in eastern China, Verité investigators found a cheat sheet for employees including the question, "Does the company use corporal punishment?"
The prepared answer: "Never."
Other companies prohibit journalists from visiting facilities.
Apple denied several requests to visit Foxconn facilities producing iPods, while a Foxconn spokesman said that without Apple's permission, journalists could not visit "or we could be sued."
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Foxconn, which according to Chinese media reports employs 200,000 workers, breaks Chinese labor laws.
Huang Duomei, 18, who had moved to Shenzhen from China's eastern Anhui province last summer, said some workers worked "for a month straight because they want to earn more overtime pay."
According to local and national laws, assembly line worker Lei Huang's weekly salary should be at least $38, more than he reported, said a local labor bureau official, who gave only her surname, Li.
But determining whether laws are broken in China is complicated because companies can deduct charges for room and board before paying workers, she added.
Easier to document is China's poor workplace safety record. According to the government office in charge of work safety, 14,382 people died in industrial accidents in China in 2006.
Workplace safety is particularly poor in Shenzhen, experts said. Seven workers died in a fire at an underwear factory in Shenzhen last month after sponge used to make bras "apparently blocked the only exit and emitted a poisonous smoke," the China Daily reported.
Despite the problems, Chinese workers continue to seek factory jobs because they pay more than farming, and labor activists said he best way to improve factory conditions is to draw attention to illegal practices.
iPods: Built at a factory that has been cited for forced overtime and
corporal punishment. Apple Inc. stepped up inspections and asked the
company to correct violations.
- Walt Disney Co.: When the company discovered substandard conditions at
factories that made 'Little Mermaid' books and other items, it stopped
doing business with them.
- Bratz dolls: Made at a Shenzhen factory where workers make 51.5 cents an hour and work as long as 94 hours a week.
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