Amongst the other disclosures in the report:
"■ Excessive overtime is routine, despite a legal limit of 36 hours a month. One payslip, seen by the Observer, indicated that the worker had performed 98 hours of overtime in a month.
■ Workers attempting to meet the huge demand for the first iPad were sometimes pressured to take only one day off in 13.
■ In some factories badly performing workers are required to be publicly humiliated in front of colleagues.
■ Crowded workers' dormitories can sleep up to 24 and are subject to strict rules. One worker told the NGO investigators that he was forced to sign a "confession letter" after illicitly using a hairdryer. In the letter he wrote: "It is my fault. I will never blow my hair inside my room. I have done something wrong. I will never do it again."
■ In the wake of a spate of suicides at Foxconn factories last summer, workers were asked to sign a statement promising not to kill themselves and pledging to "treasure their lives"."
My take on this report is that a lot of this is nothing new. The biggest item is the news that overtime limits are still being exceeded, something that Foxconn has pledged to prevent. However, when managers claim that the overtime is voluntary, they are, at least in my experience, speaking the truth.
Likewise, taking only one day off in thirteen to meet a short-term goal is nothing new either. During my time at Foxconn, which admittedly was in the patenting department, I also worked similar periods of time without a day off.
The humiliation of poorly performing workers is not a great surprise, since this kind of punishment by public loss of face is a not uncommon feature of Chinese culture, as well as that of many other East Asian countries, particularly Japan. However, I rarely saw it in my own corner of the company, and it was never taken to the extreme. The same with the self-criticism letter.
In fact, the thing which strikes me most about this report is the degree to which it shows an improvement over those of previous years. The report may pooh-pooh basic pay of 1,350 yuan a month in Chengdu, but it is significantly better that the 800-1,000 paid to people working as waiters, hairdressers etc. 24 people to a room may be considered cramped, but it is significantly better than the 100 to a room reported in 2006. You may even consider that university students in China often sleep 8 to a room and that this is the case for most of the workers I knew at Foxconn. The anti-suicide pledge is strange, but it is hard to see how it is objectionable, nor should even 14 suicides in a year be that surprising in a factory employing more than 500,000 people.
At the very least, there seems little in this report about Foxconn itself to justify the well-intended but somewhat odd editorial in Sunday's Observer, in which Lucy Siegle segues from conditions in Cambodian sweat shops (no doubt appalling) to the suicide of a South Korean man (nothing to do with 'the developing world'). Oddness aside, her central point is this:
" . . . this is a battle for human decency and that if the price of a product is to condemn fellow humans to grab a few hours sleep cheek by jowl in a concrete dormitory for a pittance, that is surely too high a price."
This is fine, but in the specific case of Foxconn, the report which she says "lays bare" conditions at electronic manufacturers in general, no one is 'condemned' to work there. Most Foxconn workers arrive from far poorer condition in the countryside, where earnings of 500 yuan a month are common. They exchange the dead-end lives in the countryside for far better earnings, and accommodation in the main no worse than that in which most Chinese university students live. By Chinese standards, there wages are not "a pittance", nor are their living conditions terrible.
For most of them, Foxconn offers the opportunity to gain new skills which many of them then market to other companies, especially Huawei. I support all constructive efforts to improve conditions for workers in developing countries, particularly those in which no democratic system which might give the workers a forum in which to voice their grievances exists. However, boycotting the products they manufacture will simply impoverish them, and truly "condemn" them to living in poor conditions on "a pittance".