Foxconn’s iPhone Factory Women Workers Don’t Want To Return
Rajeshwari, who has an MBA degree, says she lost two potential jobs in Chennai after her father succumbed to the virus. With an education loan to repay and a family with no earner, she took up a job at Foxconn’s iPhone factory. One that paid so less that she would need more than a year’s salary to buy an Apple Inc. phone she assembled. Now, even that’s gone.
She was at one of the hostels of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., as Foxconn is officially called, in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu when women took ill with food poisoning, forcing the facility to shut down temporarily. As operations resume, Rajeshwari, who didn’t reveal her real name fearing backlash, wouldn’t return. Even if it means giving up the only job she could manage during the pandemic.
More than 85% of the 17,000 employees at the plant are women, mostly temporary hands, according to the workers and activists BloombergQuint spoke with. Almost all are 25 or younger, and landed there through local middlemen.
Companies try to avoid full-time hires to circumvent India’s stringent labour laws. Flare-ups over wages are common. Yet, conditions at the Foxconn facility were unacceptable by any standards. While allegations of running sweatshops are nothing new for the company, it is bad publicity for India’s pitch of an alternative global manufacturer as companies look outside China to diversify supply chains.
More so when an iPhone manufacturing facility witnesses labour unrest for the second time in two years in the country. In December 2020, videos of baton-swinging workers at Wistron Corp.’s factory in neighbouring Karnataka had gone viral. They were angry over salary delays.
And it’s not just iPhone makers. BBC reported in November 2020 how Indian workers in Karnataka factories supplying to the U.K.’s top supermarket chains faced exploitative conditions and were not paid the minimum legal wage.
Insects, Worms In Food
The industrial town of Sriperumbudur, about an hour’s drive southwest of Chennai, boasts of manufacturing facilities operated by Indian units of Hyundai Motor Co., Saint-Gobain, SA Daimler Group, Renault-Nissan, and Lenovo Group, among others.
The bulk of Foxconn’s contractual workers are from neighbouring districts. Education levels, like the rest of Tamil Nadu, are better because of the state’s liberal funding policies. Yet, lack of jobs means they are willing to take up low-skilled work.
On Dec. 20, scores of people blocked highways after about 250 women working at the iPhone factory fell sick. More than 159 were hospitalised. The company’s silence amplified the anger as local labour unions mobilised support.
Even after the workers fell sick, Foxconn or its contractors didn't inform anyone that they were shifted to the primary health centre and then to a multi-specialty hospital in the city, said a member of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. He spoke anonymously to avoid revealing the identify of women he helped.
Conversations with workers, who didn't want to be identified fearing backlash, revealed disregard for basic living conditions.
They often found worms, insects and even safety pins in canteen food, said a 21-year-old who was among those who took ill. She stayed in a dormitory at International Maritime Academy in Puduchatram village of Tiruvallur district. But they didn’t complain out of fear of losing jobs, she said.
Venpa Staffing Services Pvt., the operator of the dorm, wasn’t reachable over the phone. Queries emailed to the company’s ID available with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs database didn’t elicit a response.
At another hostel in nearby Oragadam, as many as 25 women lived in a room that should accommodate only five, said a 23-year-old woman who stayed there. The water was supplied only for an hour and a half and there were no dustbins, she said. Housekeeping staff cleaned up the dorm once in three days, she said.
Workers said Gaia Consulting and Solutions Pvt. was partly managing for the Oragadam hostel. The contractor didn’t respond to queries.
The women endured this for salaries that would barely help a family survive.
The Sriperumbudur factory assembles 10,000 iPhones each in three shifts. The contract employees were paid Rs 10,273 and received Rs 8,847 after deductions every month. At least according to two payslips reviewed by BloombergQuint.
Some of the workers alleged that the company paid Rs 16,000-20,000 but about half that amount was credited to their accounts.
Phone calls and emailed queries to Gaia Consulting and Solutions, the contractor that hired the two women, went unanswered.
Local activists and lawyers said it was the absence of a union that left Foxconn workers vulnerable to exploitation.
“Employers are increasingly resorting to hiring contract labourers because they want to avoid responsibility; and evade statutory obligations as specified by the different labour laws,” said Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan, a Chennai-based advocate who takes up labour issues. “They should be accountable for contractual labour as well, especially when they are part of an international supply chain.”
Collective bargaining would help workers get fair wages, according to Gopalakrishnan. “Since 2008, we have witnessed several labour protests as many companies do not grant recognition to representative unions. This is a pertinent issue. Representative unions need to be respected and recognized by employers.”
India’s labour rules are not new for Foxconn, which assembled Nokia Corp.’s phones at the facility earlier. The plant had witnessed protests when the Finnish giant decided to shut operations after selling its handset division to Microsoft Corp. in 2014.
In 2019, the Taiwanese contract manufacturer repurposed the factory to assemble iPhones with a promise of creating up to 25,000 jobs as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Make in India campaign. The company plans to invest more than $1 billion over three years.
For Apple, the Chennai factory is part of the plan to shift some production away from China amid tensions with the U.S.
India is one of the three countries manufacturing Apple products, apart from Brazil and China. And the company is increasingly meeting India demand from local assembly.
According to Counterpoint Research, the Indian market’s share of domestically manufactured iPhones rose from 17% in 2018 to 76% in 2021. Exports increased to 5% from nil a couple of years ago.
Yet, Apple and its partners have also faced criticism about the treatment of workers at factories in China. Particularly after a spate of suicides at Foxconn’s facility in Shenzhen in 2010.
No One To Blame?
Foxconn and Apple admitted lapses in living conditions at the Sriperumbudur facility.
“We are very sorry for the issue our employees experienced and are taking immediate steps to enhance the facilities and services we provide at the remote dormitory accommodations,” Foxconn said in a statement. And cited improvements for a “rigorous monitoring system to ensure workers can raise any concerns they may have, including anonymously”.
The two companies, however, didn’t respond to BloombergQuint’s queries on salaries and if any action has been taken against the contractors.
They can’t escape the blame, said advocate Pradhaban, who works with CITU for labour rights. “Even if the facilities are being maintained by the contractors, isn’t it the responsibility of the principal employer to ensure the factory, canteen, and housing complies with the norms stated in the Factory Act?”
“We need pragmatic amendments to our existing laws to ensure that the business practices strictly comply with the norms, especially contract labour use,” he said. “Punishment for non-compliance should also be sharply enhanced and assured.”
A team of ministers and senior officials of the Tamil Nadu government did visit the facility on Dec. 25 and asked the Taiwanese manufacturer to improve the working conditions.
But the administration hasn’t so far fixed accountability. Instead, the team recommended a litany of services that are bare minimum for any lodging provider—clean toilets, adequate drinking water, 50 square feet space for every employee in the hostel, inverters and security for women.
“We had given a set of suggestions to the Foxconn management, and they have assured us that they will follow it,” Labour Minister CV Ganesan’s told reporters.
Activists blame the government for poor standards. Tamil Nadu has issued a bulletin that sounds more convincing to the Foxconn management than the workers, said S Kannan, deputy general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of Left-affiliated CITU.
The company, meanwhile, resumed partial operations at the factory on Jan. 12 with 500 workers. And it’s expected to fully reopen after Pongal towards the end of January.
And while Rajeshwari has decided not to return, she won’t be the only one. Most of her friends, she said, are also looking for other jobs.