Sony, Foxconn report reminds us Apple isn’t the only firm with labor issues

(Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon/ files / Japan Business)

When a Foxconn plant producing Apple products is accused of mistreating its workers, it triggers a media firestorm. Apple is then forced to address the issue to try to contain the fallout.

But when the same Chinese company is accused of abusing workers on behalf of any other major technology company, the reports are greeted with a relative yawn by Western media.

The latest electronics company to face reports of problems at overseas factories is Sony.  A report from Chinese media, picked up by Quartz, cited bad labor practices at a Foxconn plant said to be producing the PlayStation 4. The report said that student intern workers at the plant were being required to work overnight and overtime shifts in order to graduate -- an allegation that Foxconn has now confirmed and said is in violation of its company policies.

All of the major gaming companies -- Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo -- and myriad other electronics companies also employ Foxconn to produce and assemble their consumer electronics. Yet labor practices in Foxconn facilities making products for these companies don't get nearly as much scrutiny as those in Foxconn's Apple facilities.

That's not because other firms have a perfect labor record. Last January, for example, Foxconn workers making Xbox consoles got attention when they threatened mass suicide in a dispute over staffing assignments. In response, Microsoft issued a statement saying that it has a Vendor Code of Conduct and expects its vendors to follow it. Nintendo gave a similar response after questions were raised about Foxconn's labor conditions  in October 2012, citing concerns that underaged interns may have been making its Wii U console.

Compare that to the furious reaction to reports of bad working conditions at Foxconn plants making Apple products, which prompted protests and threats of Apple boycotts. The backlash has spurred Apple to take steps to improve its disclosure on corporate responsibility reports, be more open about the factory audits it conducts and  better explain its supply chain to consumers. The company has also addressed the issue of using student workers.

It’s possible that Apple’s response to that backlash will encourage consumers to continue raising complaints about overseas labor conditions, trying to  prompt  similar action from console makers. Of course, these aren't easy issues for tech companies to deal with by any means. They lie at the heart of complicated debates about labor costs, profit margins and the eventual prices they charge for their products.  But SonyMicrosoft and Nintendo — all of whom release annual reports with admirable goals for "corporate responsibility" — could take steps to address concerns about their own supply chains, which could, in turn, bring the issue into an industry-wide conversation.

Instead, they've let Foxconn do most of the talking.

As for Sony's most recent overseas labor controversy, Foxconn apologized for the problems, while Sony largely stayed silent.

In a lengthy statement supplied to The Washington Post, Foxconn — declining to confirm its clients or the products that it produces — acknowledged that in "a few instances" its factory violated company policies on intern labor. The firm also said that it regularly checks in on its internship program to make sure factories are complying with its standards.

"Immediate actions have been taken to bring that campus into full compliance with our code and policies," the  statement said. "These actions include reinforcing the policies of no overtime and no night shifts for student interns, even though such work is voluntary, and reminding all interns of their rights to terminate their participation in the program at any time."

Sony, meanwhile, said in a statement that it "expects its suppliers, including Foxconn, to fully comprehend and comply" with its supplier code of conduct.  "We are in communication with Foxconn and are investigating the matter," the company said.

Nintendo and Microsoft could not immediately be reached for comment on whether they would be looking into the labor practices in their own production lines in light of the Foxconn report.

Update: In a statement, a Microsoft spokesperson did not address Foxconn specifically but said that its Code of Conduct is enforced by contract, and also requires training and regular assessments of supplier facilities. "If our strict standards are not met, suppliers risk business restrictions or termination of their contract," the statement said.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



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