Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group, a leading maker of Apple’s iPhones and gadgets for other global brands, is widening the scope of union elections at its sprawling facilities in China.
The move, confirmed by the company Monday, follows a series of recommendations from an international panel requested by Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) to audit conditions for the 1.2 million workers in Foxconn’s mainland factories.
Foxconn said it will deepen employees’ involvement in union elections so the unions can more effectively represent their interests. It said it hopes this will impact labor standards throughout China.
Foxconn previously came under heavy scrutiny for labor policies that allegedly led a dozen workers to commit suicide. It has also faced increasing protests and strikes as Chinese workers become increasingly aware of labor rights.
A deadline for the changes comes in July.
Apple becoming a member of the Fair Labor Association last year triggered reforms.
“Anyone can run to be a representative on the labor union,” Louis Woo, a spokesman for Taipei-based Foxconn, said by phone.
The company’s expansion of worker representation started late last year and “has to be in compliance with China’s labor union laws.”
Foxconn, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics, submitted to FLA audits of some campuses after Apple joined the labor-monitoring group following worker suicides and an explosion at another supplier that soiled public perceptions of the iPhone maker.
Checks by the Washington-based FLA last year found at least 50 breaches of Chinese regulations and the code of conduct Apple signed when it joined the association.
The FLA also said that worker committees “may not be truly representative” because management nominates candidates for election. Foxconn agreed to ensure that elections would take place without interference, the group said.
Foxconn more than doubled wages after protests from rights groups including China Labor Watch and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior. A follow-up report by the FLA in August said Foxconn was on track to meet its July deadline for free elections and cutting worker hours to 49 a week.
Foxconn began rolling out the new union electoral process, with more union representatives directly elected by workers, last year, Woo said. The company must wait for current terms to expire before implementing the new procedures, he said.
Any union must be a member of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which may choose to conduct collective bargaining instead of allowing Foxconn workers’ representatives to deal with management, said Geoff Crothall, spokesman for Hong Kong- based China Labour Bulletin.
That may mean Foxconn workers don’t get to engage in real collective bargaining because the ACFTU often balances the needs of companies and the government with those of workers, he said.
To make the new process meaningful, Foxconn needs to ensure the elected union representatives are workers, not managers, and are treated as equals by the company, Crothall said. Those representatives also need to be held accountable by their co- workers, he said.
“Foxconn deserves plaudits for this initial step, but it’s just an initial step,” Crothall said. “It’s going to be a completely new experience for them because they’ve been used to telling workers what they’ll get.”