Foxconn promotes China workers' unions at Apple's request

Foxconn, the manufacturer of many high-profile electronics including the iPhone, is encouraging workers to participate in unions. But critics doubt it will bring much change.

TAIPEI/BEIJING — Foxconn Technology Group, the assembler of most of the world's top-selling electronic gadgets, including Apple's iPhone, is trying to raise participation in its union as part of efforts to dispel a rash of bad publicity over poor working conditions and labor disputes.

Taiwan's Foxconn, which employs more than 1 million people, mostly in China at huge factory complexes, hit the headlines in mid-2010 following a spate of worker suicides and widespread allegations of poor conditions, long hours and low wages.

Apple, Foxconn's main client, asked the U.S.- based Fair Labor Association to review Foxconn's operations last year following the troubles at its plants and criticism of Apple itself for having its high-priced gadgets made in low-wage Foxconn plants.

UNION ELECTIONS

Foxconn said on Monday it was increasing the number of junior employee representatives in committees within the union representing its workers. It said all its sites had been holding elections to increase the number of such positions, and the management was not involved in the election process.

"As a part of efforts to implement the Action Plan that was developed together with the Fair Labor Association, Foxconn is introducing measures to enhance employee representation in the Foxconn Labor Union and to raise employees' awareness of the organization," it said in a statement.

Foxconn's latest plan follows recommendations in the FLA report. It has already implemented other recommendations and has increased wages and improved amenities at its sites.

RELATED: Apple steps up labor audits, finds underage workers

Foxconn is the trading name of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.

NOT MUCH CHANGE

Labor analysts said that while the latest plans show willingness on the part of the company to engage its workers, they would not mean much of a change, with the key point being how the representatives will be chosen.

"Only by letting the workers choose their candidates by themselves and then vote for them can they fully express the hopes of workers," said Wang Jing, dean of the department of labor relations at Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing.

"But anyway, it's good to see this. It shows that the company wants to improve its relations with the workers," she added, noting that Apple was likely to be pushing Foxconn to implement change to protect its own brand image.

Foxconn's labor troubles are not unique in China, where many workers face much worse conditions, but because of the company's high-profile customers, which also include Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Nintendo, it has attracted the most attention.

Others were skeptical that Foxconn's plans could lead to real change, given that independent labor unions are technically forbidden in China, and noted that previous experiments in worker representation in foreign companies have not resulted in much change.

"Foxconn is not the first company in China that has tried 'democratic' elections," said Anita Chan, professor at the China Research Centre, the University of Technology in Sydney, citing previous moves by Reebok, Wal-Mart and Honda.

"They all caught a lot of international attention at the time of the union elections, but all came to naught. It is all PR."

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions, backed by the stability obsessed Communist Party, discourages worker activism and generally sides with management in labor disputes.

Reporting by Clare Jim in Taipei and Beijing; writing by Jonathan Standing

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