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: Gamers Against Sweatshops Petition]