Foxconn plans Chinese union vote

Workers on a production line at Foxconn's Longhua plant, which employs 300,000 people and makes products for Apple.

Story highlights

  • Foxconn preparing representative labor union elections in China factories for first time
  • Foxconn says elections will include more junior employees, no management involvement.
  • Move is in response to frequent worker protests, soaring labour costs

Foxconn, the contract manufacturer whose biggest customer is Apple, is preparing genuinely representative labour union elections in its factories in China for the first time, a powerful sign of the changes in the workshop of the world demanded by an increasingly restive workforce.

This would be the first such exercise at a large company in China, where labour unions have traditionally been controlled by management and local government. Foxconn is the country's largest private sector employer with 1.2m mainland workers.

The Taiwanese company, the world's largest contract maker of electronics, said that the new election process would see a larger representation of junior employees and no management involvement.

"The position of chairman and 20 committee members of the Foxconn Federation of Labour Unions Committee will be determined through elections once every five years through an anonymous ballot voting process," Foxconn said in response to questions from the Financial Times.

The move is part of Foxconn's attempts to tweak its manufacturing machine, which makes a large proportion of the world's gadgets such as iPhones, tablets and computers, in response to frequent worker protests, riots, strikes and soaring labour costs. Beijing is also encouraging collective bargaining as a way to help contain the growing unrest.

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Since a wave of worker suicides at the company's Chinese plants in 2009 and 2010, its treatment of its huge workforce has attracted intense scrutiny. Foxconn has become a focus for criticism of practices widespread in Chinese factories including illegal overtime, low pay and the use of underage workers.

Apple reacted by bringing in the Fair Labor Association, a US-based labour group, for an audit of some of the manufacturer's largest plants. One of the issues pinpointed by the FLA was the union's failure truly to represent workers.

After the Lunar New Year holiday this month, Foxconn, with the help of the FLA, will begin training its Chinese workers in how to vote for their representatives. They will be choosing up to 18,000 union committees whose terms expire this year and in 2014, according to three people familiar with the situation. Since the unions have so far had no real role in addressing worker grievances and have been dominated by management, most young workers know nothing about what a real labour union is supposed to do.

Foxconn said more than 70 per cent of the 188 employee-elected representatives at its Shenzhen campus were frontline workers. However, sources familiar with the matter said workers have historically had little say in the committees that run the union.

"The process through which Foxconn's current labour union representatives were chosen was not democratic because there was no open and transparent nomination of candidates, and it is not representative because more than half of the committee members are from management," said one person working on the election plans.

The chairman of Foxconn's labour union in China, Chen Peng, is the former head of the office of Terry Gou, the company's founder and chief executive. People familiar with the company described Ms Peng, who uses the English name Peggy, as a key confidante of Mr Gou and a trusted member of the management team in China.