Comment: Chinese worker exploitation, the iPhone5 and you

By Paul Collins

As Apple launches its new iPhone5, controversy surrounds its Taiwanese-owned supplier Foxconn over alleged exploitation of Chinese workers – including many who have migrated from other rural areas for jobs in cities.

Foxconn has remained at the centre of reported abuse since 14 workers in 2012 jumped to their deaths from its buildings.

Before opening up its economy in the late 70s, China had stringent controls on the movement of people between rural and urban areas, preventing migration to cities. These controls were part of the permit (hukou) system, in which welfare entitlements, such as pensions, housing, health and education, were tied to a person's place of birth. When China moved towards a market economy, cheap rural labour helped fuel the country's growth and constraints on migration were reduced. But the restrictions on household registration of the hukou have remained in place. So migrant workers become outcasts, without access to any state benefits or protection, despite Chinese laws enshrining "equal rights" for all.

Trying to escape from extreme poverty, rural migrant workers find themselves trapped in appalling working conditions. Most of these workers are women earning extremely low wages – the average monthly salary including overtime is CNY 1,690 yuan (£164). Migrant workers endure long working days, toil seven days a week – many without an employment contract – and face constant discrimination. Living conditions are poor, with up to six people sharing small cramped dormitories. Women migrant workers, who are primarily employed in factories, seldom obtain maternity leave. And with no childcare facilities and working weeks of more than 70 hours, many are forced to send their children to live with their families in the countryside.

In addition, the level of occupational disease and injuries is alarmingly high. In 2009 alone, approximately one million workers were injured at work and about 20,000 suffered from diseases due to their occupation. One of the biggest risks to the health of textile workers is sandblasting, a technique used to treat denim so that the fabric has a worn look. Sandblasting exposes workers to silica dust particles which severely damage their respiratory passages causing silicosis, a serious disease which, if left untreated, eventually leads to death. Although sandblasting was banned in the EC in 1966, this process continues to be practised in China, despite these serious health risks. Corporations are able to avoid accountability for occupational diseases like silicosis by exploiting legal loopholes. Moreover, the official state trade union has failed to take action on behalf of workers who fall ill and corporations are rarely compelled to pay sickness compensation.

War on Want supports two partners to empower migrant workers and improve working conditions in the Guangdong province. One of the partners is a labour organisation that seeks to empower Chinese migrant workers to defend their rights by raising awareness of their entitlements, and equipping them with the skills and knowledge to challenge abuse. The other partner is a campaigning organisation experienced in undertaking hardhitting international drives and entering into dialogue with brands.

War on Want will continue to back our partners and unite with other groups to fight exploitation in China and elsewhere.

Paul Collins is media officer at the anti-poverty charity War on Want and has worked for voluntary organisations including ActionAid, the TUC and the Health Visitors’ Association, besides the Equal Opportunities Commission, after journalism on newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and Birmingham Post.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.