Women force changes in Indian iPhone factory, sick of bad food, crowded dormitories

SRIPERUMBUDUR, India, December 30 (Reuters) – For women who assembled iPhones at a Foxconn plant in southern India, overcrowded dormitories without flush toilets and food that sometimes crawled on worms were hard to bear.

But when dirty food made over 250 of the workers sick, their anger boiled over, culminating in a rare protest that shut down a plant where 1[ads1]7,000 had worked.

A closer look at the events before and after the December 17 protests by Reuters sheds a bright light on the living and working conditions of Foxconn (2317.TW), a central company in Apple’s (AAPL.O) supply chain.

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The tumult comes at a time when Apple is increasing production of its iPhone 13 and shareholders are pushing the company to provide greater transparency about working conditions with suppliers.

Reuters spoke to six women who worked at the Foxconn plant near Chennai. Everyone asked them not to be named due to fear of retaliation at work or from the police.

Workers slept on the floor in rooms that housed between six and 30 women, said five of those workers. Two workers said the hostel they stayed in had toilets without running water.

“People living in the hostels always had some kind of illness – skin allergies, chest pain, food poisoning,” another worker, a 21-year-old woman who left the facility after the protest, told Reuters. Previous food poisoning cases had involved one or two workers, she said.

“We did not make a big deal out of it because we thought it would be fixed. But now it has affected a lot of people,” she said.


Apple and Foxconn said on Wednesday that they found that some dormitories and dining rooms used for employees at the factory did not meet the requirements.

The plant has been put “on probation” and Apple will ensure that the strict standards are met before the factory reopens, a spokesman for Apple said.

“We have found that some of the external dormitories and dining rooms used for employees do not meet our requirements, and we are working with the supplier to ensure that a comprehensive set of corrective actions is implemented quickly.”

The spokesman did not elaborate on the improvements that would be made to workers at the plant or the standards that would be used.

Laws regulating housing for women 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 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 dormitory where workers became ill from food poisoning, declined to comment.

Food poisoning and subsequent protests have also led to the investigation, some of which is ongoing, by at least four Tamil Nadu government agencies. Officials have also privately told Foxconn to ensure better conditions, said senior government officials.

“It is Foxconn’s responsibility,” Thangam Thennarasu, the Tamil Nadu state minister of industry, told Reuters.

The Tamil Nadu 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 the workers ‘living conditions follow the authorities’ recommendations and meet legal requirements, the statement says.

Apple and Foxconn did not indicate when the plant would reopen.

Foxconn had told government officials that it had “increased production too quickly”, although production was reduced during April and May when the Delta variant of COVID-19 crashed in India, a senior government official 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 jobs in the industry.

Sriperumbudur, a city outside Chennai where the factory is located, is a busy industrial area with factories making Samsung (005930.KS) and Daimler (DAIGn.DE) 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 facility over three years.

Foxconn outsources the staffing of the factory to labor brokers, who are also responsible for housing the workers – mostly women – who are employed there.


After the protests, food safety inspectors visited the hostel where the food poisoning took place and closed the dormitory 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 meet the required safety standards,” he said.

The women who work at the Foxconn facility earn about $ 140 (10,500 Indian rupees) in a month and pay the Foxconn contractor for houses and food while working at the facility.

Most workers are between 18 and 22 and come from rural areas in Tamil Nadu, said the leader of a women’s workers’ union. The monthly salary at the plant is more than a third higher than the minimum wage for such jobs, according to guidelines from state authorities.

The 21-year-old worker who quit after the protest told Reuters that her parents are farmers who grow rice and sugar cane. She said she looked for a city job like many others in her village and considered Foxconn salaries good.

Several activists and academics said that women recruited from peasant 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 rural areas, which exposes them to exploitation and reduces their ability to organize. themselves and fight for their rights. “


The food poisoning incident sent 159 women from a dormitory to hospital on December 15, workers told Reuters. Around 100 more women needed medical attention but were not hospitalized, the Thiruvallur district administration said last week.

A rumor – which later turned out to be untrue – was that some of the women who had become ill had died. When some sick workers did not show up for work at the factory two days later, others staged a protest when shifts were changed.

“We were intimidated and we talked to each other at the hostel and decided to protest. There was no leader,” one of the workers told Reuters.

On December 17, about 2,000 women from nearby Foxconn hostels took to the streets, blocking an important highway near the factory, the district administration said.

Male workers, including some from a nearby car factory, joined a renewed protest the next day, the Foxconn workers who Reuters spoke to said.

Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday, removing hundreds of protesters by truck.

Police arrested 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 those arrested, local union leaders and a lawyer who tried to help detainees told Reuters.

Reuters could not independently confirm the descriptions of the police reaction.

M Sudhakar, the chief police officer in the 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 arrested. All rules were followed,” he told 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 security measures to prevent COVID-19 infections, he told police in a testimony reviewed by Reuters.

“I went to that place to investigate since there is a chance this place could be a COVID cluster,” Mohan told police. “The women were forced to stay at the hostel where no guidelines for coronavirus were followed.”

The unrest at Foxconn was the second to involve an Apple supplier in India in a year. In December 2020, thousands of contract workers at a factory owned by Wistron Corp (3231.TW) destroyed equipment and vehicles due to the alleged non-payment of wages, causing an estimated damage of $ 60 million.

Apple had then said that they were putting Wistron to the test and that they would not assign new business to the Taiwanese contract manufacturer until it considered the way the workers were treated at the plant.

At the time, Wistron said it had worked to raise standards and fix problems at the factory, including payroll systems. Wistron restarted operations at the plant earlier this year. Apple had no immediate comment on Wistron’s status when asked by Reuters. ($ 1 = 74.53 rupees)

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Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan, A. Ananthalakshmi and Ahmed Farhatha in Sriperumbudur; Further reporting by Stephen Nellis in San Francisco, Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles, Chandini Monnappa and Sethuraman NR in Bengaluru and Rupam Nair in New Delhi; Editing Sayantani Ghosh and Kevin Krolicki

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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