Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook on Tuesday, following up on the company's response to a March report from the Fair Labor Association that cited unsafe working conditions and worker rights violations. Apple and its leading Chinese supplier Foxconn then pledged to make improvements including complying with Chinese law with regard to overtime pay, the ability to form independent unions, accident reporting and insurance benefits.
Brown wrote in his letter that, "Chinese workers who make iPads and iPhones have often toiled long hours under dangerous conditions for little pay," and that China's "government does nothing to stop these abuses."
Apple did not respond to a request for comment on Brown's letter.
According to witness testimony at a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Committee on China, which Brown co-chairs, abuses persist at factories that manufacture high tech consumer products, and in industrial facilities of all kinds, and the current regime of sending inspectors to review working conditions is prone to abuse.
Li Qiang, founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, speaking through a translator, said that inspectors are frequently bribed, and that factories routinely import outside workers in between inspections. These "dispatched laborers" are injured at a higher rate than regular workers.
Charles Kernaghan, who heads the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, an advocacy group that works to combat sweatshop conditions, turned his sights squarely on VTech, a manufacturer of cordless and wireline telephones, and a vendor to AT&T and Motorola. Kernaghan told of a network of undercover informants who revealed a culture of abuse at VTech factories, ranging from holding back wages from employees, crowded and unsanitary living conditions, and exhausting overtime shifts.
One glimmer of improvement cited by Kernaghan is an apparent reduction in the use of child labor, possibly as a concession to the sensibilities of the U.S. public.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., CECC Chairman and a long-standing advocate of incorporating worker rights issues into global trade pacts, said, "As good corporate citizens, multinational corporations, such as Apple and Microsoft, must ensure that international labor standards are being implemented in their factories and supply chains in China."
In his questioning of witnesses, Smith alluded to the alleged participation by multinationals in helping to enforce China's one-child policy by using informants to identify women who were pregnant in contravention of the law, and the possibility of China exporting convict labor to Africa to work in construction of roads, bridges and buildings. Witnesses could not confirm these allegations.
In the absence of any legislation designed to spur improvements in conditions for workers in Chinese factories that contract with U.S. companies, Smith asked witnesses if they would consider petitioning for an investigation of China's labor policies by the United States Trade Representative. Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO, said the group was "contemplating" such a move.