Monotonous piece-work, 12-hour shifts around the clock, six days a week, combined with merciless pressure to succeed and a steady boost in productivity. That is how media describe the work day at Foxconn's Asian assembly plants, where computers, smart phones and game consoles are assembled manually. The plants belong to a subsidiary of the Taiwan-based conglomerate, and they are geared to tough efficiency, maximum profits, and wages that barely suffice to survive. The world's largest IT manufacturer came under the spotlight three years ago after 13 Chinese employees committed suicide. Now, Foxconn is in the media's focus once again, though far from its Asian centers of production.
Just a three-hour drive from the East German city of Dresden, according to reporters for Germany's c't computer magazine, Foxconn produces computers in its plant in the Czechtown of Pardubice under similar conditions to those in its Asian plants. "People who work in an office have no idea how exhausting and intense an assembly line job is," reporter Christian Wölbert told DW.
According to the reporters, it is impossible for workers to chat, take a short break or even drink something during their 12-hour shifts on the assembly line. Foxconn does not forbid such diversions, but "the number of units required is so great that it is impossible for workers to allow even such minimal distraction," Wölbert says. According to c't magazine, workers on the assembly line earn 550 euros ($744) a month, including bonuses and overtime. That may be more than Czech minimal wage, but it is only 60 percent of the national average wage.
Wölbert is highly critical of the bonus system. Bonus payments amount to about 100 euros a month, but they depend on the assessment of the entire assembly line's work. A single individual may do a good job, but his bonus is slashed if his colleagues don't fulfill the quota, he says.
Foxconn management rejects the allegations. Petr Skoda, Senior Director at Foxconn's EMEA Supply Chain Management, says individual output is rewarded with individual bonuses. Skoda told DW the company - checked regularly by Czech authorities - sees itself as a member of the European Union and "follows all of the EU's laws."
Christian Wölbert, however, is not accusing Foxconn of breaking the law. He assumes that Foxconn more or less abides by Czech laws - but he wonders whether the standards are humane and "whether exhausting 12-hour shifts are acceptable under this system." He also suggests the company exploits legal loopholes, as parts of the plant in Pardubice are run by subcontractors "that are quickly created, and quickly disappear again, putting them out of the reach of sanctions."
The allegations against Foxconn could have repercussions on a European level. Concerned about a trend toward exploiting workers in poor EU member states, EU parliamentarian Jutta Steinruck has asked the European Council and Commission to launch an investigation. "A modern form of slavery is no longer uncommon in some companies and sectors in Europe," Steinruck told DW, adding the EU should open information centers for migrant workers "who often don't understand the local language and have no access to the unions."
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Steinruck's inquiry regarding Foxconn's activities may force EU leaders to pay attention. There are signs the Taiwanese company could expand in Europe. Protests by workers in Asia, some of which have turned violent, and rising wage levels in China have resulted in electronics manufacturers casting about for alternative locations. Observers don't rule out that Foxconn could move to Central and Southeast Europe. Average wages there may be higher than in Asia, but the infrastructure is good and distances to European customers are shorter, making shipments more profitable.
Foxconn already owns a second plant in Kutna Hora, 40 kilometers from Pardubice, where it makes servers. The company also produces televisions for Sony in Slovakia. Other electronics manufacturers also have a foothold in the area: according to c't magazine, Flextronics constructs Lenovo computers in Hungary and Celestia produces printed circuits in Romania.
Foreign entrepreneurs enjoy an employer-friendly political environment in former East Bloc countries like the Czech Republic. In the mid 1990s, politicians offered incentives to attract foreign companies, "mainly tax breaks and concessions for construction projects," Jennifer Schevardo of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) told DW.
The trade unions have very little influence. A commitment to workers' rights or the maintenance of social achievements no longer play a major role in the post-socialist era, Schevardo says: "Whoever creates lots of jobs enjoys a lot of leeway. There is not much interference."