Watchdog group: Foxconn hid young workers before inspection

One of the organization's employees also says Foxconn banned 16- and 17-year-old workers from overtime while inspections are ongoing.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read
A worker at one of Apple's supplier plants.
A worker at one of Apple's supplier plants. Apple

Foxconn, an Apple manufacturing partner, has been leveled with an accusation regarding teenage workers, even as the Fair Labor Association inspects its facilities.

Speaking in an interview published today by AppleInsider, Debby Sze Wan Chan, project officer of the Hong Kong-based not-for-profit Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), said that Foxconn moved younger workers and banned them from overtime ahead Apple's of requested audits by the Fair Labor Association, an independent group.

"All underage workers, between 16-17 years old, were not assigned any overtime work and some of them were even sent to other departments," Chan said, citing research and interviews her organization conducted at the Foxconn facilities. She also told AppleInsider that one worker described an offer she was given by management to take three breaks in a single day. She told SACOM that she was previously only allowed one break per day.

SACOM has been in operation since 2005. A description on the organization's Web site says it's "devoted to improving the labor conditions of cleaning workers and security guards under the outsourcing policy."

Apple announced last week that it had asked the Fair Labor Association to investigate Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China. The company made the decision following widespread outcry among activist groups and even some employees who said working conditions were unsafe. One employee, called "Miss Chen" to protect her identity, went as far as telling CNN recently that she almost feels "like an animal" working for Foxconn.

"We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we've asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement announcing the audits. "The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports."

Last week, FLA President Auret van Heerden told Reuters in an interview that Foxconn's facilities are "first class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm."

"I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory," he continued. "So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory. It's more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps."

Soon after van Heerden's comments were published, SumofUs, an organization that distributed petitions to Apple retail stores earlier this month, criticized him, saying that he shouldn't have said anything about Foxconn until the inspections are complete.

"It is inappropriate in the extreme for the FLA to be making any statements whatsoever this early in an allegedly independent investigation," said Taren Stinkebrickner-Kauffman, executive director of SumOfUs. "So far all they've done is have a guided tour of the premises by Foxconn executives--what exactly were they expecting, that the company would voluntarily show them the dark underbelly of the factory life on the first day?"

But van Heerden didn't let Foxconn entirely off the hook. In a follow-up interview with Bloomberg last week, van Heerden said that Foxconn has a "ton of issues," adding that he believes "we're going to see some very significant announcements in the near future."

For SACOM's Chan, those announcements can't come soon enough, given the working conditions she claims Foxconn's workers tell her about.

"The workers always tell us they resemble machines," she told AppleInsider. "Their regular day at Foxconn is waking up, queuing up for baths and work, work and go back to the dormitory and sleep. They do not have a social life and they are doing the same monotonous task in the factory for thousands of times a day. If they are not efficient enough or they make some mistakes, they will be yelled at by their supervisor or punished."

Apple did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment on the AppleInsider report.