Underage and Low Wage Labor

Your shiny new gadget may be the product of distinctly un-shiny working conditions. Over the past few years, tech companies have faced a flurry of accusations about underage, overworked, and underpaid employees in their production chain, especially at factories in China. Largely thanks to this external pressure, conditions are beginning to change for the better—but a Chinese tech factory is still a workplace most Americans would find unbearable. Most of the bad press has centered on Apple, but other companies routinely engage in similar practices. Many tech companies are currently auditing their suppliers for labor violations, but there is still a long way to go towards making the tech production industry humane and aboveboard.

  • The New York Times reports that in 2010, 137 workers at an Apple plant suffered injuries from cleaning iPhone screens with n-hexane, a toxic chemical. The reason? N-hexane evaporates faster than rubbing alcohol, speeding up the cleaning process and making workers more productive.
  • There have been several deadly explosions in recent years at Chinese Apple factories. The explosions were due to aluminum dust, a hazard easily mitigated through improved ventilation.
  • Foxconn, a Chinese company that supplies products for Samsung, Apple, and Sony, has been criticized for terrible working conditions. There was a storm of bad press for the company in 2010 after 19 suicides by factory workers.  In 2012, the company confessed to hiring underage workers through shady “internship” programs. In many cases, teachers forced the interns to work long hours at the factory in order to complete their academic programs.
  • In Apple’s 2013 “Supplier Responsibility Report,” the company reveals that it terminated its contract with PZ, a circuit board supplier in China, after auditors discovered 74 employees of PZ who were under 16.
  • Mandatory overtime and other brutal working conditions are commonplace in the industry. After auditing its factories in China, Samsung has pledged to eliminate illegally long hours by 2014.
  • Apple’s 2013 report discussed the company’s efforts to reduce illegal overtime, while noting that 60 hour works have long been the industry norm. An investigation by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour in 2013 revealed that 70 to 100 hour workweeks were not out of the ordinary, and that workers often had only one or two days off in three months.

--Liz Soltan