Brazilian Foxconn Factory can Serve as Fair Labour Model

by Matt Klassen on April 12, 2012

Is it possible to treat workers well and still produce affordable technology? It doesn’t seem so in Foxconn’s Chinese factories, but its Brazilian factories tell a different story:

There sits a Foxconn factory in the industrial town of Jundiai, Brazil, a manufacturing plant where, strange as it may sound, workers aren’t dying in explosions or throwing themselves off buildings, where no one is expected to work grueling amounts of overtime just to make a substandard wage and where no one is subject to an unhealthy work environment.

In fact, employees at the Brazilian factory, which is now ramping up its production of Apple’s marquee products, never work more than a legally mandated 44-hour work week and receive a wage (a starting wage at least) double that of their Chinese counterparts. Fair Labour groups have pointed to such factories as examples of ethically produced technology, a place where Apple’s ability to get devices produced at a lower cost doesn’t come at the cost of human lives.

If such a reality exists, however, why do employees in Foxconn’s China-based factories continue to suffer through abhorrent workings conditions? Perhaps only because both Apple and Foxconn know they can get away with it.

Recently the official report from the Fair Labor Association, the firm hired by Apple to audit the Chinese Foxconn plants, was released, confirming everything I and many others have been writing about for several years now. The conditions in the Foxconn plants are bad, really bad, with those who make our beloved iGadgets grossly overworked and significantly underpaid.

In response Apple and Foxconn have laid out a plan to raise pay and hire more workers to alleviate labour demands, a plan, an email from labour watchdog group SumOfUs reports, that Apple isn’t planning to execute for another 15 months! The issue, SumOfUs explains, is that Apple is still running its disaster playbook, something it did six years ago when it first hired the FLA to audit Foxconn factories and first realized just how bad things were, and that it seems, unfortunately, that Apple is simply promising change to make us forget about the reality of how our favourite devices are made overseas.

But as we look at the Foxconn plant in Brazil, a place that seemingly doesn’t exploit workers and still manages to produce what I would guess are affordably priced Apple gadgets, I have to ask, what’s the difference between them? The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the difference is working standards, as in Brazil the workers in Foxconn factories are unionized, whereas the workers in China are threatened and fired for even speaking of such things.

So who’s to blame here? Truthfully there’s plenty of it to go around, with every player who has the ability to affect change in this abhorrent labour game simply passing the buck to the next party. China needs to improve its working standards, mandating the formation of unions to protect workers rights. Apple needs to pay Foxconn fairly for the products it receives, paying the manufacturing giant enough that it can make a profit and increase wages, and Foxconn simply needs to stop exploiting its Chinese workers and push for systemic change.

The latter two players have shown such things are possible in Brazil, so now is the time to make it work in China as well.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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Alex Olegnowicz April 12, 2012 at 10:34 am

You failed to consider on your comments that the Jundiai plant was built mainly for internal consumption. It is true that salaries in Brazil are well higher than in China and labour rules are much stricter, yet what you fail to mention is that Brazil has an overheated economy with the most overvalued currency. Brazilians pay almost 800 dolars for the same ipad you can buy in the US for 500 and it is cheaper to buy a round trip to New York, one night stay and a top of the line iphone at AT&T than buying the same phone in Brazil. So its easy to say that it would be easy for Foxconn to change the labour conditions in their China plants, but comparing them to Brazil is like comparing oranges and, well, apples.

Matt Klassen April 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Thanks for the comment Alex. Its true I have only a passing knowledge of the Brazilian economy, so I appreciate your point of view. That being said, are you saying that underpaying workers in Chinese Foxconn factories is justified because the cost of living in China is lower than Brazil? I fully understand that in China Foxconn is almost forced to pay its workers less, as its receives only a few dollars from Apple for every device sold. My point is that I know Apple and Foxconn can make money and still pay their workers fairly, I still think the factory in Brazil is evidence of that and I still think factories in China can follow suit.

Alex Olegnowicz April 12, 2012 at 8:13 pm

As I can understand it, Foxconn operates in China with razor thin margins as it is. The higher salaries in Brazil reflect a higher price for the same goods. I am certainly not an economist so I don’t know what the solution is. However Brazil presents a different problem altogether which is sustainability of their economy in the long term.

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