The report on computer equipment, including keyboards and printer cases, for H.P, Dell and Lenovo

computer science


In 2008, the National Labor Committee sponsored an investigation into working conditions

in two factories in China that make computer equipment, including keyboards and printer

cases, for Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft. The report, which was published in

early 2009, describes working conditions that are extremely harsh by Western standards.

According to the report, in the Metai factory in Guangdong, the workers sit on wooden

stools, without backrests, as 500 computer keyboards an hour move down the assembly

line, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with just two days off a month. Every 7.2 seconds

a keyboard passes each worker, who has to snap six or seven keys into place—one key

every 1.1 seconds. The assembly line never stops. The workplace is frantic, monotonous,

numbing, and relentless. Each worker inserts 3,250 keys an hour; 35,750 keys during the

official 11-hour shift; 250,250 a week, performing more than 1 million operations a

month. Workers are paid 1/50th of a cent for each operation they complete. While working,

employees cannot talk, listen to music, or even lift their heads to look around. Workers

needing to use the bathroom must hold it until there is a break. Security guards spy on the

workers, who are prohibited from putting their hands in their pockets and are searched

when they enter and leave the factory. The factory operates 24 hours a day on two 12-hour

shifts, with the workers rotating between day and night shifts each month. The workers

are at the factory for up to 87 hours a week, and all overtime is mandatory. There are two

half-hour meal breaks per shift, but after racing to the cafeteria and lining up to get food,

the workers have only about 15 minutes to eat. The base wage is 64 cents an hour, which

after deductions for primitive room and board drops to a take-home wage of just 41 cents

an hour. The workers get up about 6:00 A.M . When they return to their dorm, sometime

between 9:00 and 9:30 P.M ., they bathe using a small plastic bucket. Summer temperatures

routinely reach into the high 90s. During the winter, workers have to walk down

several flights of stairs to fetch hot water in their buckets. Ten to twelve workers share each

crowded dorm room, sleeping on narrow metal bunk beds that line the walls. Workers

drape old sheets over their cubicle openings for privacy.

Comments from the workers at this factory, most of whom are young women between

18 and their mid-20s, reinforce how harsh the conditions are. One stated, “Every

day I enter the factory and I assemble keyboards. My hands are moving constantly and I

can’t stop for a second. Our fingers, hands and arms are swollen and sore. Every day I do

this for 12 hours. What makes it even worse is the constant pressure and boring monotony

of the work.” Another notes, “The factory rules are really like a private law. We are forced to

obey and endure management’s harsh treatment. Some young workers have boyfriends

and girlfriends outside the factory and if they want to go on a date, we have to beg the

boss for mercy to be able to leave the factory compound.” Another said simply, “We feel like

we are serving prison sentences.”

When informed of these findings, a spokesman for Microsoft said the factory supplied

one of its contract manufacturers, but Microsoft would investigate. Representatives from

Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo also stated the factory was not a direct supplier, but supplied

their suppliers. However, they too said they would look into the issue. A spokesman for

Dell, for whom the factory is a direct supplier, said it was actively investigating conditions.

The spokesman went on to say, “I can tell you that any reports of poor working conditions

in Dell’s supply chain are investigated and appropriate action is taken.”

Sources: “The Dehumanization of Young Workers Producing Our Keyboards,” The National Labor

Committee, February 2009, accessed at

HIGHTECH_MISERY_CHINA_WEB.pdf; A. Butler, “29p an Hour Slaves Make Our Cut Price Computers,”

Sunday Mirror, February 22, 2009, p. 34; and R. Thompson, “Prison-like Conditions for Workers

Making IBM, Dell, HP, Microsoft and Lenovo Products,” Computer, February 17, 2009.

Case Discussion Questions

1. What enables the owners of the Metai factory profiled in this case to get away with

such awful working conditions?

2. Should U.S. companies like Microsoft, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard be held responsible

for working conditions in foreign factories that they do not own, but where

subcontractors make products for them?

3. What labor standards regarding safety, working conditions, overtime, and the like,

should U.S. companies hold foreign factories to: those prevailing in that country or

those prevailing in the United States?

4. Do you think the U.S. companies mentioned in this case need to make any changes to

their current policies? If so, what? Should they

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