Big electronics brands often sell themselves as the vanguard of enlightened capitalism, not only solving our everyday problems through technological fixes but also making the world a better place along the way. To polish that image of technocratic progress, multinationals like Apple and Samsung frequently conduct well-hyped “corporate social responsibility” monitoring campaigns—showing that their overseas factories are eco-friendly, and that their supply chains are humane and “sweat free.” But labor advocates say a Chinese supplier factory for Samsung reveals that dirty labor practices are still lurking within these companies’ the ultra-slick assembly lines.
A new investigation by the US-based watchdog group China Labor Watch has uncovered numerous labor violations at a Korean-owned Samsung supplier in southern China, Dongguan Shinyang Electronic. The group’s field research and undercover infiltration of the facility revealed underaged workers and punishing labor conditions.
The major allegation is that Shinyang has employed at least several teens under age 16, the legal working age in China, and many more under age 18. They were hired, CLW says, as part of a labor dispatch system in which agencies funnel short-term “student workers” to factories that need surplus labor to handle seasonal influxes in export orders. Student temps are paid at lower rates despite doing comparable work. The New York Times followed up with a report affirming the identity of three girls, aged 14 and 15, who were apparently hired with false identification.
The CLW report echoes a 2012 investigation by the group showing similar use of child labor. But it also follows a glowing annual report from Samsung about the progress of its social responsibility programs. According to that report, multiple factory audits on 100 Chinese supplier plants—conducted by an outside auditor commissioned by Samsung—found “no instances of child labor.” The report did, however, note that other labor problems were widespread, including overtime violations and chemical safety hazards. Nonetheless, Samsung accentuated the positive, focusing on its programs to monitor and improve labor standards in supplier factories.
(Courtesy: China Labor Watch, “Another Samsung Supplier Exploiting Child Labor” [PDF])
Though Samsung stood by its record after CLW’s report was released, the activists contend that abuse and exploitation remain endemic to China’s electronics manufacturing labor structure. Harsh conditions are actually built into the rigors of the job. At Shinyang, workdays last up to eleven hours, with rigid production quotas and supervisors looming over workers while barking orders. Children were afforded no special protection. In one case described in the report, child workers on the assembly line struggled to meet a 700-piece hourly production quota because the factory’s cumbersome plastic tweezers were slowing them down (evidently production rates were far better monitored than labor conditions). According to the report,