An investigation by the Fair Labor Association into factories operated by Apple supplier Foxconn in China found poor working conditions and worker abuse, leading Foxconn to pledge it will make improvements.
A monthlong investigation by FLA revealed compensation issues, health and safety risks, and issues that have led to a "sense of unsafe working conditions among workers," the organization said in a statement.
FLA claimed it gave Foxconn "a full-body scan through 3,000 staff hours," and surveyed more than 35,000 workers, while investigating three of its factories. Foxconn Technology Group, owned by Hon Hai Precision Industry, is Apple's largest supplier and makes the iPad and iPhone. Independent groups have urged Apple to address the poor conditions of factory workers in China.
Foxconn has been under scrutiny over the past few years, following a string of suicide attempts at facilities in China. The company came under fire again earlier this year after the New York Times published a story describing poor working conditions at Chinese factories operated by Apple contractors. Nonprofit organizations such as Change.org are running campaigns calling for Apple to address the issue and make products ethically.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has defended Apple's record, saying the company is leading the way in improving working conditions. Apple also acknowledged violations related to issues such as wages, underage labor and working conditions in its 2012 annual supplier report issued in January.
While past investigations by watchdog groups such as Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) have covered just a few factory workers, FLA's exhaustive investigation covers three Foxconn factories in the cities of Guanlan, Longhua and Chengdu. The organization says that if Foxconn were to take corrective action, the lives of 1.2 million workers would improve.
In the audit, FLA found that workers were forced to work extra hours and were not given appropriate compensation. Workers on average worked 56 hours per week, including overtime, which exceeded the Chinese legal limit of 49 hours per week including overtime. About 64.3% of the surveyed workers felt that their wage was not enough to meet their basic needs, and FLA also found issues related to the assessment of overtime pay.
On Thursday, Foxconn said it was committed to bringing working hours within the Chinese legal limits and to fairly compensating workers by July 2013. Foxconn committed itself to hiring and training more workers and to compensating workers for lost wages.
A considerable number of workers also had health and safety concerns, which was of particular concern to FLA after an explosion at the Chengdu factory last year killed three people.
About 43% of the workers experienced or witnessed accidents, ranging from hand injuries to factory vehicle accidents, FLA said. Only accidents that resulted in a production stoppage were reported, but Foxconn has now committed itself to report all accidents that cause injury.
Foxconn has also "committed to be more inclusive" of workers in health and safety monitoring and decisions. The survey said "a majority of workers were generally not involved in the safety and health committees and had relatively low levels of confidence in the management of those issues."
Part of the low confidence in management came from a lack of worker integration into the company's activities, FLA said. The committees lacked worker representation, and as a result failed to monitor working conditions effectively. Foxconn has agreed to "ensure elections of worker representatives without management interference," according to the study.
The key question following FLA's report is whether Apple and Foxconn will keep any of the promises they made, said Scott Nova, executive president of Worker Rights Consortium.
"They have been promising to end forced overtime since 2006, for example, and have not done it. I hope this will be different, but skepticism is in order until we see proof of real progress," Nova wrote in an email message.
Apple became an FLA affiliate in January 2012 and was not up to speed on the organization's code of conduct at the time of the investigation, FLA said. FLA provides a set of rules for internationally recognized labor standards that member companies can voluntarily implement, and the onus is now on Apple to enforce the rules.
"Apple has committed to ensuring that the FLA code standards are upheld in its supply chain," FLA said in the report. The organization will continue monitoring steps that Foxconn and Apple are taking to meet FLA's recommendations.
Apple did not respond to requests for comment.