Apple closed its Foxconn iPhone factory in India on December 18 after appalling conditions were found inside the heavily guarded facility.
Reuters spoke with six women working at the Foxconn plant near Chennai. Everyone asked them not to be named for fear of retaliation at work or from the police.
The women told the news media that they were forced to live in overcrowded dormitories without toilets and eat food crawling worms, while rats ran wild in the kitchens, which also had poor drainage.
It was not until stained food sickened over 250 of the workers that their anger boiled over, culminating in a rare protest that closed a factory where 17,000 had worked.
The tumult comes at a time when Apple is stepping up production of its iPhone 13, and shareholders are pushing the company to provide greater transparency about working conditions at suppliers.
For women who collected iPhones at a Foxconn factory in southern India, overcrowded dormitories without flush toilets and food sometimes crawling with worms were problems one could endure for the paycheck. Private security guards stand at the entrance to a closed facility in Foxconn India
A closer look from Reuters at the events before and after the December 17 protests sheds light on the living and working conditions of Foxconn, a company central to Apple’s supply chain.
Workers slept on the floor in rooms that housed between six to 30 women, five of those workers said. Two workers said the hostel they lived in had toilets with no running water.
“People living in hostels have always had one disease or another – skin allergies, chest pain, food poisoning,” another worker, a 21-year-old woman who left the factory after the protest, told Reuters. Previous cases of food poisoning had involved one or two workers, she said.
‘We did not make a big deal out of it because we thought it would be corrected. But now it affected many people, she said.
Apple and Foxconn said Wednesday they found that some dormitories and dining rooms used for factory employees did not meet the required standards. The plant has been “on trial” and Apple will ensure that its strict standards are met before the factory reopens
Apple and Foxconn said Wednesday they found that some dormitories and dining rooms used for factory employees did not meet the required standards.
The plant has been put ‘on probation’ and Apple will ensure that its strict standards are met before the factory reopens, Apple said in a statement.
“We have found that some of the remote dormitories and dining rooms used for staff do not live up to our requirements and we are working with the vendor to ensure that a comprehensive set of corrective actions is implemented quickly.”
Apple did not elaborate on the improvements that would be made to factory workers or the standards that would be applied.
The laws on housing for female workers in Tamil Nadu require that each person be allocated at least 120 square meters of living space and require housing to comply with hygiene and fire safety standards as set by local authorities.
Foxconn said it was restructuring its local management team and taking immediate steps to improve the facilities. All employees will continue to be paid while making the necessary improvements to restart operations, the company said.
Venpa Staffing Services, a Foxconn contractor who runs the college where workers became ill from food poisoning, declined to comment.
Food poisoning and subsequent protests have also led to investigations, some of which are ongoing, conducted by at least four Tamil Nadu government agencies. Officials have also privately told Foxconn to ensure better conditions, senior state officials said.
“It’s Foxconn’s responsibility,” Thangam Thennarasu, Tamil Nadu State’s industry minister, told Reuters.
The Tamil Nadu state government said in a statement last week that the state had asked Foxconn to ensure working and living conditions were improved, including the quality of housing and drinking water.
Foxconn has agreed to ensure that workers’ living conditions follow government recommendations and meet legal requirements, the statement said.
Apple and Foxconn did not specify in their statements when the factory would reopen.
Foxconn had told government officials that it had ‘increased production too fast’, although production was curtailed during April and May when the Delta variant of COVID-19 raged in India, a senior official from the state’s industrial department told Reuters .
Taiwan-based Foxconn opened the factory in 2019 with the promise of creating up to 25,000 jobs, a boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign to create production jobs.
Foxconn said it was restructuring its local management team and taking immediate steps to improve the facilities. All employees will continue to be paid while making the necessary improvements to restart operations, the company said. The picture shows the outside of the Foxconn India plant
The tumult comes at a time when Apple is stepping up production of its iPhone 13, and shareholders are pushing the company to provide greater transparency about working conditions at suppliers
Sriperumbudur, a city outside Chennai where the factory is located, is a busy industrial area with factories manufacturing Samsung and Daimler products nearby.
The factory is central to Apple’s efforts to move production away from China due to tensions between Beijing and Washington. Reuters reported last year that Foxconn planned to invest up to $ 1 billion in the plant over three years.
Foxconn hires factory staff to work brokers, who are also responsible for housing the workers – mostly women – who are employed there.
After the protests, food security inspectors visited the hostel where the attack of food poisoning took place and closed the college kitchen after finding rats and poor drainage, Jegadish Chandra Bose, a senior food security officer in the Thiruvallur district where the hostel is located, told Reuters.
“The samples analyzed did not live up to the required safety standards,” he said.
The women who work at the Foxconn factory earn the equivalent of about $ 140 (10,500 Indian rupees) in a month and pay the Foxconn contractor for housing and food while working at the factory.
Most workers are between 18 and 22 and come from rural Tamil Nadu, said the leader of a women’s workers’ union. The monthly salary at the factory is more than a third higher than the minimum wage for such jobs, according to government guidelines.
The 21-year-old worker who stopped after the protest told Reuters that her parents are farmers who grow rice and sugar cane. She said she applied for a job in the city like many others in her village and considered the Foxconn salary good.
Several activists and academics said that women recruited from agricultural villages to work in Sriperumbudur’s factories were seen by employers as less likely to organize or demonstrate, a factor that made the protests at the Foxconn factory – which is not unionized – even more remarkable.
V. Gajendran, assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work in Chennai, said that women recruited to work in nearby factories’ typically come from larger, poorer families in the countryside, exposing them to exploitation and reducing their ability to to unite and fight for their rights. ‘
The incident of food poisoning sent 159 women from a dormitory to the hospital on December 15, workers told Reuters. About 100 more women needed medical attention but were not hospitalized, the Thiruvallur district administration said last week.
‘We were upset and we talked to each other at the hostel and decided to protest. There was no leader, one of the workers told Reuters.
On Dec. 17, about 2,000 women from nearby Foxconn hostels took to the streets, blocking a key highway near the factory, the district administration said.
Male workers, including some from a nearby car factory, took part in a renewed protest the next day, the Foxconn workers, with whom Reuters spoke, said.
The police responded to the larger, second protest by beating the male workers and then chasing and turn some of the women involved, two workers and Sujata Mody, a local union leader who had interviewed workers, told Reuters.
Police detained 67 female workers and a local journalist, confiscated their phones and called their parents with a warning to get their daughters in line, three of the detainees, local union leaders and a lawyer trying to help the detainees, Reuters said.
Reuters could not independently confirm the descriptions of the police response.
M Sudhakar, the chief police officer in Kancheepuram district, denied that protesters were beaten, telephones confiscated or that workers were intimidated by the police.
‘We strictly adhered to the guidelines and respected the rights of those detained. All rules were followed, he tells Reuters.
K. Mohan, a village-level administrator who went to the hostel where the food poisoning incident took place to investigate living conditions on December 16, found no precautionary measures to prevent COVID-19 infections, he told police in a testimony reviewed by Reuters .
“I went to that place to investigate it as there is a chance this place could become a COVID cluster,” Mohan told police. ‘The women were forced to stay in the hostel where no guidelines for coronavirus were followed.’