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Asia

'Whoever produces cheapest wins the contract'

China Labor Watch reports tech giant Apple is producing a low-cost iPhone at 'high costs to Chinese workers'. The NGO's director, Li Qiang, accuses the supplier Pegatron of inhumane working conditions at its factories.

DW: Apple came under fire last year because of revelations regarding precarious working conditions at the company's largest supplier Foxconn. The latest reports now claim that conditions at Pegatron factories are even worse. How has this happened?

Li Qiang: The business practices at Apple supplier Pegatron do not only violate Apple's worker protection regulations, but also Chinese labor law. We have registered a total of 30 violations. Although the infringement of workers' rights is common practice in many Chinese factories, one can say that the conditions at Pegatron are much worse.

What do you consider to be the most serious violations?

Chinese labor law stipulates that a worker is not allowed to work more than 36 hours of overtime per month. At Pegatron, however, 100 hours of overtime are common. Documents recording the amount of overtime worked in the factories are manipulated, thus making it impossible for Apple to notice. Furthermore, Pegatron has employed many temporary workers, far more than the amount permitted by law. The company doesn't pay for these workers' social security, nor does it contribute to their pension insurance funds.

Li Qiang, executive director of China Labour Watch

Li says Pegatron has violated more that 30 working regulations

During the probation period, the workers' identity cards are taken away. They are retuned only weeks later in order to force the employees to continue working. Whoever decides to resign ahead of time is paid 600 yuan (about 50 euros) less.

Furthermore, the application process is marred by discrimination. Whoever is shorter than 5 feet or over 35 years of age is not accepted. Muslims, Uighurs, Tibetans and members of some other ethnic minorities are also rejected.

What can be done against worker exploitation in a globalized world?

The government and the companies are capable of changing the situation, but they are not really interested in protecting the workers. Local authorities in China go to considerable lengths to lure investors into the country, often disregarding violations of worker's rights. Ultimately, most of the people working in the factories are migrant laborers who the political establishment doesn't care much about.

Companies want to reduce costs as much as possible, so there is fierce competition among suppliers. Whoever produces cheapest wins the contract. Apple speaks of four main factors in its supply chain: prices, quality, speed and social responsibility. But in reality only the first three aspects determine whether a supplier gets the order.

How difficult is it for workers to organize themselves in China?

There is only one official labor union in China. The finance authority holds the workers' membership fees and passes them on to the union. This is why the union represents the interests of the firms, instead of those of the laborers. Workers in China have no organization to stand up for their rights. International corporations must make social responsibility a priority and implement the working standards agreed upon.

Is the public pressure being exerted on Apple paying off?

Apple has reacted with a public relations campaign. They believe it is more lucrative to invest a bit more in PR than to improve working conditions. The wave of indignation will soon recede, making the realization of stricter controls unlikely.

Li Qiang is the founder and executive director of the New York-based China Labor Watch.

The interview was conducted by Haiye Cao.