Explosion at plant making iPads kills three in China

An explosion last Friday at a Chinese factory that makes Apple iPads killed three workers and injured 15 others. The factory, which employees about 100,000 and is located in Chengdu, is owned by Foxconn Technology Group, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision Industries Ltd, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic equipment. Foxconn in China also manufactures electronic devises for HP and Dell.

The blast took place in the polishing department. A preliminary investigation by the company blames the explosion on combustible dust in an air duct. A report issued May 6 by a Hong Kong-based group called Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) cited the build up of aluminium dust at the Chengdu plant as a critical concern of Foxconn workers  interviewed for the report.

Foxconn gained notoriety last year after it installed anti-suicide nets around worker dormitories at its Shenzhen plant after seven workers in separate incidents in May leapt to their deaths from dormitory windows. In all, 13 workers at the plant have committed suicide since the plant opened.

The deaths put pressure on Apple and Foxconn to take steps to improve conditions at Foxconn plants. Some improvements were made; for example, Foxconn raised worker pay, but according to SACOM’s report, conditions at Foxconn plants remain grim.

“Life at Foxconn is work, sleep, eat,” one male Chengdu worker told SACOM investigators. The workday begins at 8:30 in the morning and is supposed to end by 6:20, but workers are often forced to work overtime. The report says that Foxconn workers work about 80 to 100 hours of overtime a month, much more than the 36 allowed by the Chinese labor law.

The SACOM report also says that although the basic wage for Foxconn workers is 9 percent higher than the Chinese minimum wage, it is still well below what SACOM estimates to be the local living wage. In Chengdu, the basic monthly wage is 1300 yuan. The living wage, the amount needed to survive beyond the subsistence level, is, according to SACOM, 2600 yuan.

The lack of health and safety at the Foxconn plants is also a problem. “Occupational health and safety issues at Chengdu are alarming,” reads the report issued two weeks before the explosion. Workers work with dangerous chemicals but receive no training for how to handle them.

Workers also said that the plant’s ventilation system is poor. “I’m breathing in dust at Foxconn just like a vacuum cleaner,” said a male worker. “My nostrils are totally black every day.” Workers in the polishing department, where the May 20 explosion took place, complained they were always breathing in aluminum dust because the ventilation system was so ineffective. Workers in the milling machine department had the same complaint.

Perhaps the worst thing about working at Foxconn is that workers “feel helpless (about bringing) change,” which in turn leads to the feeling of resignation and despair. There is no grievance procedure or other means for workers to express their concerns about safety and other work related problems. There is no way for the workers to keep from being forced to work overtime.

Last January worker frustration in Chengdu broke out when Foxconn miscalculated pay for many workers, a common complaint according SACOM. Workers began throwing bottles and rubbish out their dormitory windows to express their rage. Police were called in, and 20 were arrested. Foxconn asserts that the disturbance was a clash between two groups of workers. SACOM and the workers it interviewed blamed the company’s wage miscalculation.

SACOM and its international partners have called on Apple and Foxconn to improve conditions at the latter’s plants. The suicides last May spurred some action, but most of it was a PR blitz aimed at showing the world’s press that conditions at Foxconn were humane. The explosion seems to belie this claim.

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