NLC Releases Report on Shocking Working Conditions in Xbox Controller Sweatshop

KYE Factory Workers - More than a dozen girls exhaustedly sleep at their work stations in a Chinese manufacturing facility for electronics.

The National Labor Committee, an organisation dedicated to “exposing human and labour rights abuses committed by U.S. companies producing goods in the developing world”, released a report detailing the shocking working conditions at a KYE manufacturing facility. KYE, a Chinese firm, manufactures Microsoft Xbox controllers as well as other Microsoft products and electronics for other U.S. companies. The three-year investigation uncovered damning photographs depicting the poor working conditions and their effects on the workers. The report details the following injustices (emphasis mine):

  • 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.

The comprehensive report covers each of the above bullet points in detail, citing examples of labour and human rights abuses, as well as quotes from workers about the conditions they work under. They are pretty much powerless to do anything about the working conditions. Those who speak out are sacked. There are no labour unions. Something I found interesting about the report is the point about bosses’ preference to hire young women because young women are more easily intimidated and controlled:

Management likes the high school students since they are easy to discipline and control. For the same reason, management targets young women 18 to 25 years of age, and some up to 27, to staff its production lines. If management can help it, they will not hire any males-except if they are high school students. It is only when the factory is desperate that they will hire males and workers “as old as 40.”

And this quote regarding sexual harassment underscores the powerless and dehumanising situation that the girls and women working at KYE find themselves in:

Some security guards sexually harass the young women, often using very provocative language. There is nothing the young women can do but to bear it in silence as there is no avenue in the factory for addressing such abuse.

Chinese law requires that all international companies doing business within the country partner with a local company in order to operate within the country. According to the report, the factory managers hid their illegal activities from inspectors, so it’s possible that Microsoft might not have been fully aware of what was taking place at this facility:

Factory management knew what it was doing was illegal. When management was alerted ahead of time that there was going to be a local government inspection, all the work study students under 18 years of age were gathered in the courtyard where they would board buses to be taken to another location and held until the inspection was over.

Furthermore, workers were prepped for surprise inspections and visits by monitors, and there is intense pressure for workers to answer questions in the “right” way. Those who answered truthfully were sacked:

At the KYE factory the process of preparing for monitoring visits is somewhat subtle. Management instructs the workers to “answer the clients’ questions very carefully.” They should say they never work more than 12 hours a day and overtime is less than 36 hours a month. Workers are told to respond they are “very satisfied” when asked about working conditions, their dorms and meals. To make this sound even more “authentic,” workers are told to “spontaneously” mention other factories where they had worked in the past, where conditions were “awful.” They are more “hopeful” now that that they are working at KYE.

We asked if factory management has to openly threaten workers to lie. The answer was no. As the workers put it: “They don’t have to as workers get it and know what is going on. Those who break ranks are fired. Workers have heard of others being fired for speaking truthfully. Among themselves, workers talk about this. They know not to tell the truth.”

Whilst there appeared to be deception on the part of factory bosses, this doesn’t absolve Microsoft of responsibility in this incident. Ultimately, Microsoft (and other software companies) are the ones placing orders and entering into manufacturing agreements with these factories.

Sweatshop labour has long been a hot topic in many industries, like the clothing and shoe industries, and it’s more than likely this has been going on for a very long time in the tech industry, only we just haven’t heard much about it. No one should be forced to tolerate these sorts of working conditions. It might ease our wealthy, Western minds to tell ourselves that these workers wouldn’t be able to live without taking jobs in sweatshops, but I don’t think it should be so easily dismissed like this. According to an anonymous Chinese labour rights activist and scholar, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that way:

“The idea that ‘without sweatshops workers would starve to death’ is a lie that corporate bosses use to cover their guilt.”

Keeping in mind our (if applicable) Western-centric world view, Western privilege, and class privilege (if applicable), what do you think can be done to address this issue in the computer and videogame industries? What do you think of the KYE factory management tactic of recruiting women and girls to these jobs?

[Via 1UP.com]

[Via 1UP.com: Gamers Against Sweatshops Petition]

[Microsoft supplier in China Forces Teenagers to Work 15-hour Shifts Under Sweatshop Conditions]

About Brinstar

Brinstar is an Editor (on hiatus) at The Border House blog. She is a cisgender, temporarily able-bodied, Asian, culturally-mixed woman from the United States. She is a longtime gamer and works in the videogame industry as a community manager. You can find her blogging about games at Acid for Blood and on Twitter at @Brinstar.
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18 Responses to NLC Releases Report on Shocking Working Conditions in Xbox Controller Sweatshop

  1. DSimon says:

    Is there a network or some website where I can find good information on which brands and products don’t accept this sort of abuse?

    It’s getting to the point where I keep throwing my hands up and saying “Well, every t-shirt manufacturer on the planet does this, so what can I do?”, but that’s obviously BS reasoning on my part; if people make an effort to buy products that don’t require sweatshop labor, that will push those companies that do engage in such practices to discontinue them.

    • Kimiko says:

      The report has a full list of companies doing business with KYE: http://www.nlcnet.org/admin/documents/files/Companies-sourcing-from-KYE.pdf

      That might be a start as to which businesses to avoid:
      Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Best Buy, ACCO, Kensington, Buffalo, Sanmina, Targus, Logitech, Wilife, Samsung, LG, KYE/Genius, Acer, Asus, Bison, Blue Take, First International, Elecom, Lanix.

      My monitor is a Samsung, my PC’s mainboard is by Asus, my camera is from HP, and my microwave is from LG. I’d have to check if the PC’s memory is tainted as well.

      • Kimiko says:

        Oh, forgot the harddisk by Samsung, the DVD drive by LG, and the keyboard by Logitech.

        :( So many parts and devices that were or might’ve been made by people treated like slaves. Should I replace them right away? I don’t think I can afford to buy practically a whole new PC at once.

        • DSimon says:

          My computer is a Toshiba laptop, and all my music/gaming devices are from Nintendo or Sony. Googling those three names along with keywords like “sweatshop” doesn’t seem to come up with anything too nasty, so I may have lucked out (at least in the area of consumer electronics…).

          Then again, it’s hard to tell how much investigation has gone on, and of what quality it was. It’s easy enough to find out about the scandals, but how can I find out when companies are thoroughly investigated and still come out clean vs. not being investigated at all?

        • DSimon says:

          Crap, looks like I wasn’t entirely lucky; my cell phone is from Nokia, and they’ve been implicated in some sweatshop scandals. I’m totally unable to afford a new cellphone now, but I’ll look more into who to buy it from when the time comes to replace this one.

        • Lake Desire says:

          I would not throw out any electronics if you learn they are made in sweatshops. Electronics, even “recycled” ones, usually go to landfills in poor countries. Impoverished people mine these landfills for copper, and get very sick and die from it.

          Right now I don’t know of any sustainable way to produce computers, I recommend buying used when you can. (I need to follow my own advice.)

    • Aaron says:

      “Well, every t-shirt manufacturer on the planet does this, so what can I do?”

      Shop at Goodwill or the Salvation Army, maybe? It doesn’t do anything affirmative to put an end to sweat-shop labor, but it is at least a way to make sure your money isn’t going to inflate the profits of the sweatshop-using companies, which seems like a net benefit to me.

      Unfortunately, that’s not such a great solution when it comes to consumer electronics. I’ve yet to discover a way to spend money in that field and still keep my hands clean; in particular, Apple’s the only computer company I’ve ever seen even *pretend* to have fair labor practices, and it takes no time at all to give the lie to that claim of theirs.

  2. nanasuyl says:

    I’m always so shocked when I hear about things like that happening in the 21st century. Aren’t we supposed to be evolving? If these working conditions are the only way to make things cost less, the world is just very wrong.

    After reading the commentaries, I’m shocked as well with all these famous brands involved in this. I just got a new LG TV :-(

    Shame on Microsoft for posing as a such a forward company. Well, I never liked them, but I do hate them right now. If Bill Gates is so rich and keep donating his money, why doesn’t he invest in giving good working conditions to the employees of his own company? Stupid Microsoft!

  3. Bakka says:

    That list is really daunting. Obviously a more coordinated effort might be required to end the practice of using sweatshop labour for electronics, because simply avoiding those companies would be really difficult. e.g Apple does not make microwaves.

    Do you remember when clothes (and possibly other goods) used to have a union label to help those who purchase distinguish things made with fair labour practices? It might be good to bring back something like that. That way you would have the info at point-of-purchase instead of having to check on-line (not always possible if buying in-store).

    I think the choice between “starvation” and “sweatshop conditions” presents a false dichotomy (even if it were true that workers would starve without their jobs). We have other choices available.

    • Aaron says:

      Microwaves? Apple doesn’t even make fair-trade PCs; it plays into their marketing to pretend that they do, that’s all, because they know how much money there is in helping affluent people, Americans most especially, imagine they’ve nothing to feel guilty about. Google ‘apple labor practices’ if you don’t believe me, and then spend a little time thinking about how much easier it is to ask forgiveness (i.e., show contrition when you’re caught with your hot little hand in the slave-labor jar) than to ask permission (i.e., make certain ahead of time that you’re not doing business with slaveowners).

      We do have other choices: we have the option of modifying our behaviors so that we no longer require the exploitation of masses of enslaved workers to subsidize our flagrantly consumptive lifestyle — in short, we have the alternative of doing something Americans will never in a million years willingly do, even something which quite a lot of Americans will likely kill other Americans to prevent. After all, if it took a five-year-long, continent-spanning, all-out war to make just the American South let go of slavery, then what’s it going to take to do the same for the whole country?

      • Bakka says:

        I did Google Apple labor practices, and I think one significant difference is that the report of labour abuse is coming from Apple themselves. This matters because it shows more awareness of the issues. Certainly awareness is important for implementing change. Also, it is important that Apple is admitting the problem because this demonstrates some degree of transparency regarding the problems they still have.

        Of course they will also use this practice a a marketing ploy, but if they are serious about the practice then the fact that there is also a financial benefit does not invalidate the practice. Companies are legally required to be fiduciaries of their shareholders investments and so cannot ignore the issue of profiting from what they do. If we don’t like that, then we should change the laws, since it is supposed to be a government for the people and by the people.

        I am not sure what you have in mind with your last paragraph. Can you be more specific?

        • Aaron says:

          “Also, it is important that Apple is admitting the problem because this demonstrates some degree of transparency regarding the problems they still have.”

          I must be awfully cynical, then, but it sure looks to me like they took Foxconn more or less at its word that the worst they treated their employees was to let them work all the overtime they could stand. That doesn’t match up with pretty much any other report I’ve ever encountered about working conditions at Foxconn’s plant; take for example this example, much more representative of what I’ve seen. It might be going a bit too far to call it chattel slavery, since nobody’s being bought and sold that we know about, but indentured servitude isn’t an inaccurate description.

          I think your second paragraph is meant to be an argument against my low opinion of Apple’s occasional PR-driven lip service in the direction of fair labor practices, but it reads like a defense of why publicly-traded companies *should* engage in unfair labor practices. You seem to privilege a publicly-traded company’s responsibility to its shareholders over the responsibility of the company’s officers to their fellow human beings, and I’m not sure how to think about that.

          My last paragraph is a direct comparison between this situation we’re discussing today, and the last time we had a historical problem with a large number of Americans exploiting the coerced labor of others to subsidize a lifestyle they couldn’t afford on their own. It took a war of conquest to put an end to the problem that time, and chattel slavery was never anything like as widespread in the US as is our current indirect exploitation of indentured and enslaved laborers throughout the world — hell, we’re still buying diamonds from De Beers! Americans will, I maintain, never in a million years willingly accept the kind of austerity measures that’d be required to put our country on anything like a fair-trade footing with the rest of the world, and trying to implement them by fiat would most likely only provoke a popular revolt. So what on Earth is it going to take to stop us this time?

          (Personally, I waver between military conquest and economic collapse, leaning more toward the latter because there’s just too damn much of this country to really hope to occupy, and because it looks to be where we’re heading regardless of whether I prefer it or not.)

          • Bakka says:

            Hey Aaron, the Foxconn thing is from 2006, it looks to me like it was this event that inspired the policy for apple. (On their website the reports begin in 2007). I think that is an indication that they care to some extent (profit seeking does not preclude also being concerned about an issue). One thing about the Apple policy that I think is impressive is that they include worker empowerment as part of their strategy. This seems much better than relying on audit alone (comparing the Microsoft and Apple policies reveals significant differences).

            I don’t think it is a good idea to leave companies to do “the right thing” on their own. But I do think it is worth pointing out steps in the right direction.

            I understood the comparison you were making, between what is happening now and what was happening pre-civil war. What I did not understand was what actions you were advocating based on this comparison. I still don’t understand what you are advocating after the clarification. Military conquest? Of whom, by who? It is not just the USA causing this. Australia, Canada, Europe, etc. are also implicated. Are you suggesting war on all these countries? War lead by who? By Americans? How is that better than colonialism? Or war lead by grassroots movements within each country? I don’t think I understand.

            Economic collapse perhaps, though it seems to me more likely there will be a change in economic powers than that there will be an elimination of economic power altogether. So what do you have in mind here?

        • Bakka says:

          No, my second paragraph is not an argument for unfair labour practices. Nor is it really directed at your opinion of Apple and their PR.

          It was meant to point out that there is a problem with creating laws that either require or strongly encourage a certain kind of behaviour, if we then criticize that behaviour without at the same time working to change the laws. Given that companies are required to be competitive, they will also have to engage in serious PR about anything they do to address such problems (thereby diverting money that could be better spent actually attending to the problem). Otherwise their production costs go up, and no one will know why. It is not me that is privileging their fiduciary duties, it is case law. If anything, I think this paragraph is an argument to incorporate more business ethics into business law.

          I have no desire to defend Apple. I seriously don’t know enough about their practices or how effective they are. But it does seem that since the 2006 scandal broke, they have been taking more steps to correct these issues.

          Also, I have no desire to defend capitalism. I think there are real problems both with the theory itself and the way the theory is translated into practice.

  4. DSimon says:

    I’m thinking maybe the most practical solution to this problem might not come from the social sphere at all, but from advances in manufacturing. If it becomes cheaper to have robots make X-Box controllers than even the most ludicrously underpaid and overworked people, then we’ve won even on apathetic capitalism’s own terms.

  5. Bakka says:

    If anyone is interested, I wrote to NLC to find out whether there was a “just labor practices” label (similar to the “Fairtrade” label) and they told me there is not, although they have discussed making one, they don’t have the resources for this kind of monitoring, given the complexity of sourcing practices. They also did not know of anyone else who provided such a thing.

  6. Lake Desire says:

    I agree we have other choices. I think changing personal consumption choices is important, but I believe that only ground-up social movements will end sweatshops and the conditions that force people to work at them. I see no place for multi-national corporations, or capitalism for that matter, in a socially just world.

  7. Thefremen says:

    I think the best avenue to solve the sweatshops problem is to go through greenhouse gas reduction initiatives, reinstating pre-Reagan trade policies (particularly tariff’s as suggested by Alexander Hamilton) and so on to move manufacturing to the US, or at least to the same Hemisphere. It seems to me it would be much easier for consumers, government and corporate entities to monitor working conditions if the manufacturing is on the same continent. What’s more, the shipping costs in carbon from China-US are astronomical.

    This sounds like a defeatist attitude but it just seems like we are not in a good bargaining position with the Chinese to get any movement from them on labor issues, at least until we pay back that $2 trillion Bush borrowed to launch Crusades 2.0.

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