Someone pays the price for our cheap electronic goods

Next time you pick up a cheap piece of electronics, spare a thought for the hidden human costs.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Next time you pick up a cheap piece of electronics, spare a thought for the hidden human costs.

A report released by the National Labor Committee brings together covert photography and interviews with workers at the KYE Systems factory in Dongguan, China. This factory manufactures mice and webcams for Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Samsung, Best Buy, Foxconn, Acer, Logitech, ASUS and other US companies.

The summary itself makes for shocking reading:

  • 44541898079418150192.jpg
    Over the past three years, unprecedented photographs of exhausted teenaged workers, toiling and slumping asleep on their assembly line during break time, have been smuggled out of the KYE factory.
  • KYE recruits hundreds-even up to 1,000-"work study students" 16 and 17 years of age, who work 15-hour shifts, six and seven days a week.  In 2007 and 2008, dozens of the work study students were reported to be just 14 and 15 years old.  A typical shift is from 7:45 a.m. to 10:55 p.m.
  • Along with the work study students-most of whom stay at the factory three months, though some remain six months or longer-KYE prefers to hire women 18 to 25 years of age, since they are easier to discipline and control.
  • In 2007 and 2008, before the worldwide recession, workers were at the factory 97 hours a week while working 80 ½ hours.  In 2009, workers report being at the factory 83 hours a week, while working 68 hours.
  • Workers are paid 65 cents an hour, which falls to a take-home wage of 52 cents after deductions for factory food.
  • Workers are prohibited from talking, listening to music or using the bathroom during working hours.  As punishment, workers who make mistakes are made to clean the bathrooms.
  • Security guards sexually harass the young women.
  • Fourteen workers share each primitive dorm room, sleeping on narrow double-level bunk beds.  To "shower," workers fetch hot water in a small plastic bucket to take a sponge bath.  Workers describe factory food as awful.
  • Not only are the hours long, but the work pace is grueling as workers race frantically to complete their mandatory goal of 2,000 Microsoft mice per shift.  During the long summer months when factory temperatures routinely reach 86 degrees, workers are drenched in sweat.
  • There is no freedom of movement and workers can only leave the factory compound during regulated hours.
  • The workers have no rights, as every single labor law in China is violated.  Microsoft's and other companies' codes of conduct have zero impact. 

Here is a typical 15 hour shift:

  • 7:15 am: Unpaid.  Arrive early, cue up and punch timecard. Stand at attention as supervisor leads drills.
  • 7:30 am - 11:40 am: Four hours work with one 10-minute unpaid break.
  • 11:40 am - 1:10 pm: Lunch/Rest beak, 1 ½ hours.
  • 1:10 pm - 5:20 pm Four hours work with one 10-minute unpaid break.
  • 5:20 pm - 6:10 pm: 50-minute supper break.
  • 6:10 pm - 10:00 pm: 3.8 hours overtime.
  • 10:00 pm - 10:15 pm: Unpaid. Straighten up work area. Listen to lecture by supervisor.

On top of this, worker's movements are highly restricted, and they can only leave the compound during certain periods:

  • On weekdays, Monday through Saturday: 11:00 am to 12 noon
  • On weekday evenings, Monday through Saturday: 6:00 pm to 9:30 pm
  • On Sundays: 7:00 am to 9:30 pm

What's factory life like? One worker gives us a glimpse into the hardship:

"We are like prisoners. It seems like we live only to work. We do not work to live. We do not have a life. Only work."

Microsoft, when approached for comment, had the following statement:

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

We are aware of the NLC report and we have commenced an investigation. We take these claims seriously, and we will take appropriate remedial measures in regard to any findings of vendor misconduct.

Actions for non-compliance with our requirements may include corrective action plans, remedial training, certification requirements, cessation of further business awards until corrective actions are instituted, and termination of the business relationship. We unequivocally support taking immediate actions to address non compliant activities.

Full report here.

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