04/02/2012, 00.00
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Foxconn-Apple case a "smokescreen"

by Chen Weijun
China Labour Bulletin tells AsiaNews, "Cook's visit and the company's promises are just propaganda. There have been some improvements because management realises that too much violence inside and outside plants is counterproductive. Now the challenge is to transform China's model through a revolution in labour relations."

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - Foxconn's changes are a "smokescreen" and "promises to the Apple's boss by its officials are empty words. Their actions must be checked every day to see if they are implemented," said Geoffrey Crothall, a trade unionist and spokesman for Hong Kong-based workers' rights group China Labour Bulletin. "Working conditions have improved a little but primarily out of pragmatic considerations, not because bosses had a change of heart."

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook toured the Zhengzhou Technology Park, where 120,000 employees work, often more than 60 hours a week, in poor sanitary conditions and under strict contracts. However, after meeting local officials, Cook said he found important improvements for workers. In the recent past, Foxconn was front-page news because of its high number of suicides. Now, management said there are more controls and psychological counselling.

China's development model remains an obstacle though. Its export-orientation makes it harder to stop or even slow down production.

Foxconn officials tried to hide the situation by stressing improvements, such as better housing and minimal health care. However, the latter run risk of remaining "on paper," Crothall said.

Foxconn "has agreed to some changes, but in China this does not mean they will be implemented," he explained. "Cook's optimism is a bit premature and it would be better to be cautious before making certain statements."

"Foxconn is still looking for its own path and could improve things if it carried out all of its promises. This could also have a spill over effect on other companies. In fact, some firms have already started increasing wages and this will have a strong impact."

One of the most important aspects of the situation, Crothall explained, "is Foxconn's pledge to improve union representation inside its plants, allowing workers a role in managing them. This is a real step forward, which however has some negative consequences. Chinese workers do not have experience in trade union activism and so will face a top-down management style. Changes inside Foxconn are akin to switching from dictatorship to democracy."

Few Apple suppliers "uphold workers' rights in China," the trade union leader said. "Contacts between our association and companies in Guangdong province have increased but they are very limited. In the past year, the situation has improved in some cases, especially since workers now are no longer afraid of going on strike. The case in Shenzhen (where workers laid down their tools in a Japanese-owned plant until working conditions were improved) is a case in point."

There is still a long way to go however. "I think that the Guangdong government is pragmatic above all," Crothall said. "It wants a solution, not outright violence. Many people have come to realise that better conditions for workers is good for everyone. Talks between some firms and workers have had positive results, but only because both sides win in negotiations. This will be China's model of labour relations."

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