Could Foxconn's factory in Brazil be a model for Apple production?

A Brazilian labor leader says that Foxconn's record in Brazil shows that it can make Apple products safely, and provide decent wages for workers when labor laws and legitimate union representation require it.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
4 min read
Luis Carlos de Oliveira, vice president of Metalworkers Union of Jundiai, Brazil, at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washtington, D.C. His union represents Foxconn workers in Brazil. Jay Greene/CNET

WASHINGTON, D.C.--At Foxconn's plants in the the industrial town of Jundiai, Brazil, there haven't been any explosions.

Employees at the factory, which is ramping up production of Apple iPhones and iPads, never work beyond the 44-hour a week maximum set by Brazilian law. And those workers, when they first start on the factory lines, make twice as much as their Foxconn counterparts in China.

Labor activists point to Foxconn's record in Brazil to show that it and Apple can make products under lawful conditions while paying workers decent wages when the local environment requires it. And they believe that Apple and Foxconn have been taking advantage of Chinese workers simply because they believe they can get away with it.

"I don't know the reality of China. I've never been there," Luis Carlos de Oliveira, vice president of the Metalworkers Union of Jundiai, said through a translator. "But respect and dignity should be for everyone."

Oliveira is visiting the United States to participate in a panel hosted by the Economic Policy Institute, looking at Foxconn's labor practices in China. In an interview with CNET at the AFL-CIO headquarters here, Oliveira noted that his union tangled at times with Foxconn. But legitimate union representation coupled with tough local labor laws eliminate the breeding ground for the sort of workplace abuses found at Foxconn's Chinese plants.

"It puts a line where companies can't go past," Oliveira said.

Last month, the Fair Labor Association, a monitoring group, found widespread problems at three Foxconn factories in China that make Apple products. The audit, requested by Apple, revealed wages that don't meet workers basic needs. The group also found several examples of workers putting in more than 60 hours a week on the job, and sometimes working more than 11 days in a row.

Foxconn responded to the report by agreeing to reduce worker hours and increase their pay.

The company offered a statement, in response to comparisons of its Chinese and Brazilian operations.

"Foxconn takes our responsibility to our employees very seriously and we work hard to give all of our employees around the world a safe and positive working environment," the company said. "We are committed to working together with all of our customers to ensure that our employees are treated fairly and their rights are fully protected. As part of that partnership, we are jointly committed to honoring and respecting the codes of conduct of our customers, our own policies and practices, and the laws and regulations of the jurisdictions where we do business."

An Apple spokeswoman said the company continues to work with its supply chain partners to improve conditions for workers who make its products.

"We think empowering workers and helping them understand their rights is essential," Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said. "Our team has been working for years to educate workers, improve conditions and make Apple's supply chain a model for the industry."

Building iPhones in Brazil
Foxconn has only just begun assembling iPhones in Brazil. Last year, the Brazilian government gave significant tax breaks and other financial incentives for Foxconn to assemble Apple devices there. The idea is to provide a boost to consumer electronics manufacturing there, providing a local buyer for components that could one day be produced there. Right now, many of the components are still shipped in from Asia.

Foxconn's factories in Brazil are a fraction of the size of its Chinese operations. The company, which employs more than 1 million workers worldwide, has hundreds of thousands employed in China. Oliveira said Foxconn employs only 8,000 in Brazil. And most of those workers are building notebooks, printers, and monitors for companies such as Dell and Hewlett Packard.

The work for Apple, though, promises to be a boon for Foxconn in Brazil. Right now, Oliveira said that roughly 1,200 people work on the Apple products for Foxconn there. But the company expects to ramp up to 6,000 workers by the middle of the year. In Brazil, the company is working with the union to facilitate that hiring.

That's a stark contrast to the labor conditions in China. According to the Fair Labor Association audit there, some workers complained that the unions there do "not provide true worker representation." Union leaders are often chosen by management.

The union in Brazil has helped negotiate starting wages that are roughly $580 a month for factory workers there, compared to wages for similar work in China that can start as low as $246 a month, according to data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute. Foxconn's Brazilian employees get 30 days paid vacation after a year of employment, while its Chinese factory workers get only five days paid vacation. What's more, because of the booming Brazilian economy, wages rose last year 8.5 percent, Oliveira said.

Those regional differences in everything from the growing economy to tough labor laws have led to worker expectations that they will receive fair wages and do their jobs in a safe workplace. Oliveira believes that Foxconn's experience in Brazil shows that the workplace conditions disclosed by the Fair Labor Association audit aren't necessary for the company's success.

"The satisfied worker will produce more, and produce better," Oliveira said.