A recent report from The National Labor Committee (NLC) claims that workers at the KYE Factory in Dongguan, China are living “like prisoners”. The factory- which makes products for several companies- produces Microsoft Xbox 360 controllers, cameras and mice. Microsoft makes up the biggest portion of the factory’s output- about 30 percent.
“We are like prisoners,” one worker said in the report. “It seems like we live only to work. We do not work to live. We do not live a life, only work.”
The report accuses the KYE factory of committing several legal breaches over the last few years, including below minimum wage pay, hiring underage workers and sexual harassment of the female staff. The Chinese government did investigate once in 2008, but the supposedly unannounced inspection was leaked to factory Executives days before the inspection. The underage staff were put on busses and taken to a field, where they remained until the all clear was given. Despite photographic evidence of the underage exodus, no further investigations were initiated.
Conditions in the factory are described as “crude” and “exhaustive”. Work weeks run between 90-100 hours, and much of the labor is children on “work study programs”, many of whom are between 16-17; some are no more than 14. Temperatures generally range around 90 degrees in the shop, and mandatory shifts of 15 hours per day add up to 40.5 hours of overtime per week- 388 percent higher than China’s legal limit. Workers have three days off a month, and if an employee misses a day for any reason including illness or injury, they face fines that equal one week’s worth of pay. Unions, strikes or any deliberate work stoppage is a crime under Chinese law.
Women make up the majority of the staff, because according to the report, the female staff are easier to manipulate and intimidate. Sexual harassment is a way of life for the female workforce, and men are generally hired as children, with only a few lasting more than a year or two.
“Workers face humiliation, punishment, sexual harassment, as every moment of their lives are controlled,” the report states. “In 2007 and 2008, before the recession hit China, there were often 2,000 young people at KYE, 16 to 18 years of age, most of whom were women.”
Employees assemble up to 2000 Microsoft mice per shift, causing numerous minor injuries, but once the set number is deemed as sustainable, the quota is raised. If the workers do not make the goal, they are subject to fines and penalties. Lacerations and bruises are commonplace. Work stoppage injuries generally result in heavy fines from the management for both the workers responsible, as well as the floor managers and foremen.
While operating a hole punch in the making of an internet camera, one worker had has index finger cut off. Management took him to the hospital, but when it was discovered that the man had disobeyed an operating regulation, factory bosses fined the man $29.26- roughly 5 ½ days worth of pay- and fired immediately.
Like many international manufacturers, Microsoft outsources to companies like KYE. The manufacturer occasionally gives the factory its set of guidelines to obey in terms of human rights, which are almost always ignored. The report further claims that Microsoft executives have been through the factory multiple times, always accompanied by mid and high-level KYE managers. U.S. company representatives rarely- if ever- speak to the workers.
“The young workers never think or talk about the foreign companies and put all the blame on the factory. No one has told them how wealthy and powerful Microsoft and the other companies really are,” the report claims. “Since the young Chinese workers would never dream of making demands against Microsoft or the other corporations, this permits the corporations to tout their codes of conduct while knowing full well that they will never be implemented. It’s all just part of the game.”
Corporate Vice President of manufacturing and operations for entertainment and devices, Brian Tobey responded on the official Microsoft blog: “As a company that sells a wide range of hardware and devices, we take very seriously our corporate responsibility to ensure that the manufacturing facilities and supply chain operations that we use comply with all relevant labor and safety requirements and ensure fair treatment of workers.”
The bad press alone should be enough to garner at least a cursory investigation from Microsoft, but the actions of the American Chamber of Commerce in China – of which Microsoft is an influential member, speak differently.
In 2007 the Chinese government proposed several labor rights reforms. The law would have included: the right for all workers to have a signed contract; probationary periods to last no longer than six months, and temporary workers would be given permanent status after one year; severance for workers whose contracts were not renewed; 30-day notice before any layoffs; and the right to discuss safety and health issues with management. The law would not radically change the fabric of the workers in China, but it would be a step in the right direction and a sign to the workers that progress was possible.
The law was voted down, in large part due to pressure from the American Chamber of Commerce in China, who released this statement, “We believe it might have negative effects on China’s investment environment” [and may] “reduce employment opportunities for PRC [People’s Republic of China] workers.”
“Despite these earlier findings, we take the allegations raised this week quite seriously. Another comprehensive on-site audit of the facility will be conducted next week, with a specific goal of investigating the allegations raised in the NLC report. In addition, we will have monitors on site pending the results of the inspection,” Tobey said. “We will take all appropriate steps to ensure the fair treatment of the KYE workers.
The report focuses on the KYE factory that opened in 2002. The workforce is estimated to be around 3,000 and growing. KYE manufactures computer mice, keyboards, internet cameras, video game controls and Wacom tablets.