A Spotlight Foxconn Is Willing to Share With Samsung

Photograph by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

A customer inspects mobile devices at a kiosk selling Samsung products in Ambience Mall in Gurgaon, India.

Foxconn doesn’t like to be compared with Samsung.

Founder and Chairman Terry Gou has gone out of his way to tell audiences how the world’s biggest assembler of electronics is better and can defeat its South Korean rival on multiple fronts. He’s even readied more than $1.6 billion on a deal with Sharp to achieve that end. (The companies are still hammering it out.)

Now, two years after Foxconn found itself in the public eye over worker conditions, Samsung is joining the Taiwanese company under that same bright, hot spotlight of worker reform. Underage labor, unsafe conditions and forced overtime were among the allegations China Labor Watch made in September.

Samsung, the world’s largest maker of TVs and mobile phones, followed up with a four-week audit of 105 suppliers, which it conducted itself the same month. The results? While it didn’t find any examples of child labor, it did find “several instances of inadequate practices,” including suppliers fining workers for lateness and absences, the company said on Monday. Those issues should, in theory, be solvable through stricter enforcement of existing standards.

It also discovered something that Foxconn, Apple’s chief supplier, had already learned: Excessive overtime exists in China, and it’s very hard to stop.

“Continuing to cut overtime has been a key challenge,” Foxconn spokesman Louis Woo said back in August, when the Fair Labor Association issued a report as part of Apple’s membership in the group. Woo said “getting overtime is not an obligation but a privilege workers would actually like to have.”

Samsung acknowledged the problem of cutting overtime, saying it aims to eliminate hours beyond legal limits by the end of 2014. That’s more than two years away, an indication of how tough it may be to achieve that goal.

It also shows just how much Foxconn and Samsung, when under the same spotlight, have in common.

 

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