Microsoft supplier criticised for 'prison-like' factory

A Chinese factory supplying major technology vendors has been described as being 'like a prison' by a human rights organisation
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

A Chinese firm that supplies keyboards and peripherals for a number of technology companies has been criticised over the working conditions in one of its factories.

The Chinese firm, KYE Systems, supplies US companies including Microsoft and HP.

The National Labor Committee (NLC), a human rights group, described working conditions in the KYE factory in Dongguan province as being "like a prison".

"The young people are trapped because of the working hours," NLC director Charles Kernaghan told ZDNet UK on Wednesday. "They get pitiful wages in military conditions with gruelling production schedules. This place is like a prison."

Before the recession, 5,000 workers aged as young as 16 years would work 15-hour shifts, seven days per week, Kernaghan said. The 3,000 employees at the factory work an 83-hour, six-day week for the equivalent of ¢65 (43p) an hour, of which they take home ¢52, he added.

Workers have no real opportunity to leave the factory compound apart from Sundays, Kernaghan said. Most live in overcrowded dormitories and are subject to punitive fines for infractions such as talking to each other on a shift.

One worker was fined for losing his finger, according to an NLC report on the factory published on Tuesday. The worker, from Shanxi province, lost his index finger working on a hole punch press machine for a digital camera. He was taken to hospital for emergency treatment, but after an investigation, management determined that the worker had disobeyed regulations. The worker was fined the equivalent of about $30 and fired. He was later rehired as a security guard at the factory.

Microsoft said it was aware of the NLC report and had launched an investigation.

"Microsoft is committed to the fair treatment and safety of workers employed by our vendors," the company said in a statement. "Microsoft has invested heavily in a vendor accountability programme and robust independent third-party auditing programme to ensure conformance to the Microsoft Vendor Code of Conduct."

Microsoft said supplier non-compliance with its code of conduct could result in "corrective action plans, remedial training, certification requirements, cessation of further business awards until corrective actions are instituted, and termination of the business relationship".

Kernaghan said factory workers had reported that Microsoft was already aware of conditions at the factory, as the company performed quality control inspections. Microsoft declined to comment on this assertion.

Kernaghan added that inspections were often ineffectual as the checks are announced and workers briefed on how to answer questions by inspectors. Workers who fail to answer inspection questions as briefed are sacked, he said.

KYE systems and HP had not supplied comment at the time of writing.

The NLC wrote a similar report detailing similar factory conditions in February 2009. A Chinese hardware factory owned by Meitai that supplied companies including IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo and HP was scrutinised by NLC, which described the working conditions as "high-tech misery". Kernaghan told ZDNet UK that following the NLC report working conditions had marginally improved at the Meitai factory.

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