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 www.globallabourrights.org/admin/reports/files/
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 Weekly.com, 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