Deals on holiday electronics may be thanks to child labor

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Consumers urged to consider brands’ child labor ties when shopping

The country’s biggest retail season is in full swing, but shoppers who see great deals on popular electronics may want to consider those discounts could come with an invisible price tag: child labor.

Last week, Chinese manufacturer Foxconn found itself at the center of a Financial Times report indicating one of its plants was employing middle school-aged interns, pulling 11-hour work days.

Foxconn is one of the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturers whose more notable clients include Apple and Hewlett-Packard. The company was contracted to help produce the iPhone X, which made its U.S. debut in early November.

Foxconn responded to the Financial Times story stating it had acted immediately to reduce the interns’ work day to eight hours.

Not uncommon

Linda Diane Mull, Executive Director of the International Initiative on Exploitative Child Labor, says the situation uncovered by the newspaper is not uncommon in the technology industry.

"Oh absolutely [it’s common], and in China, definitely," Mull told ConsumerAffairs.

China has implemented laws to protect young workers, specifically mandating the minimum employable age is 16, and 16-18 year olds’ shifts must not exceed eight hours a day. Unfortunately, Mull says abuses can still take place.

A 2013 investigation by the Fair Labor Association–requested by Apple–found working conditions at three Foxconn plants assembling Apple products had improved. However, the report cited the company for hours that exceed China’s legal limit.

The investigation also followed an incident involving more than a dozen suicides by Foxconn workers that may, or may not have been related to employment practices. Between 2010 and 2013, 16 employees at Foxconn's Shenzhen, China factory reportedly took their lives. 

There have been other attempted and successful employee suicides since then, but their connection to Foxconn is unclear.

"The government of China does not allow many organizations to go into the country to do inspections," she notes. "The bottom line is whether or not there are laws and regulations, whether or not they are enforced, and whether workers have the right to organize to request better working conditions and better wages."

Enforcement still a concern

The International Labor Organization recently documented a ten percent drop in cases of illegal child labor in the last five years worldwide.

But a recent report by international health advocacy group La Isla Foundation highlights lingering problems. 

The 2015 report found children in Nicaragua were working under hazardous conditions in sugarcane fields, despite the fact that Nicaragua had ratified all of the core international covenants governing child labor.

Mull says labor advocates are still trying to prove to governments that workers can be paid more and work fewer hours and simultaneously be more productive and produce higher quality work. 

She admits it can be a tough sell among all involved.

"The problem is the workers want to work the 11 hour days in order to make the income," she said. "So you have to convince the workers that change is in their best interests."

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