Significant improvements, such as higher wages, decreased number of student interns and discontinuance of Hepatitis B tests on job applicants have taken place after makeITfair published a report in 2009 about poor working conditions at four Chinese supplier factories of game consoles and MP3 players. The four factories (supplying to Apple, Microsoft, Motorola, Philips and Sony) have been recently re-examined by makeITfair. Some important issues remain however: the wage increases are still insufficient:; overtime remains significantly high; and lack of awareness of trade unions prevails. These are the conclusions of the makeITfair report Game console and music player production in China that is published today. Authors are SACOM, SOMO and Finnwatch.

In addition to the above mentioned improvements, fees collected by labour agencies are better scrutinised, monetary fines as a punishment mechanism have been abolished, and the hygiene level of dormitories has been improved. On the other hand, overtime exceeded the government-mandated maximum overtime of 36 hours per month in all four factories under the study. Although the Chinese labour law stipulates a minimum of one rest day per week, workers from all four factories reported  periods of time when they had to work without a weekly day-off. In addition, they still experience difficulties in refusing overtime and taking leave. Over 100 factory workers were interviewed for the study.

“In spite of a series of improvements that have taken place in the four factories, root causes of workers’ rights violations and hardships persist. Genuine, independent and democratically elected trade unions do not exist. Although the extremely low basic wages have been raised, the offered wage levels are still far too low as the living wage in the Guangdong province”, says Päivi Pöyhönen at Finnwatch, participating organisations supporting the makeITfair project.

One of the studied factories belonged to Foxconn, whose factories across China were hit by a series of workers’ suicides in 2010. As a result, the company has pledged to improve working conditions, increase pay, reduce overtime hours and build a string of giant new manufacturing complexes in the inland provinces to allow workers to live closer to home. Indeed, Foxconn was the only supplier out of those studied that set a target to meet the government-mandated maximum overtime of 36 hours per month within 2011.

“In the aftermath of the suicide tragedies, Foxconn has increased the basic wage for workers with seniority of more than six months. This is a positive development, but a considerable number of workers, including student workers, have not benefited from the pay rise. At the same time, Foxconn plans to relocate its operations to inland provinces where wage levels are lower than in Shenzhen”, says Debby Chan Sze Wan from SACOM, the local research partner of makeITfair.

Most interviewed workers did not know very much about the trade unions in their factories. On the other hand, the supplier companies stated that the workers are aware of the unions and the unions have been effective in representing the needs of their workers. These praises from the companies are surprising, considering that employees are not given a possibility to elect their own union representatives and collective bargaining does not exist in China. More profound changes and overall improvements are unlikely to take place until workers become informed and aware of their rights and are given full and unrestricted rights to organize and express themselves.