Case story: exploitation and miserable conditions are routine for Dell’s suppliers

5. Nov 2013

Workers flee from Dell’s suppliers.

Terrible work conditions, overcrowded dorms, no private life and miserable wages make the workers at Dell’s suppliers quit their jobs very quickly, but not without consequences. If they leave their job without authorization, the workers are withheld a month’s pay by the factories. Interns, who come believing that they will leave their placement at the factories richer in experience relevant to their field of study, are also exploited.
The majority of workers at DELL’s suppliers in the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Jiangsu, which DanWatch has visited, have migrated to the region to find work. Therefore the factories have adjoining dorms, where the workers can live. Most dorms are on the factory grounds and have guarded gates which only open at specific times.

Three square meters to live in

Up to 8-12 workers will be sharing a room, having to stand in a long queue for the toilet, waiting for their turn to use a washing machine together with 250 other people and fighting for a place under the showers, when they are off their underpaid and consuming jobs. This is very different from what they imagined.
“I work 11 hours a day, six days a week, but only earn 2200 CNY (2025 DKK/270 EUR) a month. I sleep in a dorm where the air conditioning isn’t working, together with a massive amount of people. I have been here for three months, but am ready to quit anytime,” tells Zhu Jun in a five minute break between his regular shift and his mandatory three hours of overtime.
Like many other of the workers, he started working at the factory because he thought the job would pay well.
“My friend told me about this job when he had just come here. He said that it should be a good job, with a good wage. But when I started it was clear that the reality was different,” he says.

Quick turnover

The wretched, primitive conditions in the dorms do not leave much space for privacy, and washing clothes as well as personal hygiene is a time-consuming process, another reason why there is not much of a chance to relax in between the fatigue of the shifts. Instead of giving them economic stability and positive experiences, the job consumes them physically and mentally and leaves the workers with the feeling of being grossly exploited; this is why many quit within the first few months.
“Many quit after two months, because the salary is low, and the work too hard and exhausting,” says Li Jianguo, 26 years old, who puts together printed circuit boards at the MSI factory in Guangdong. Even if he has only been in the factory for a couple of months, he is already dreaming about what he will do afterwards:
“I want to take a driver’s license and work in transportation. Now I’m earning between 2500 and 3000 CNY (2295 to 2760 DKK/335 and 370 EUR) a month, and I work 12 hours a day, six days a week. It’s simply not enough.”

Permission needed to quit

Yang Xiaohong is also daydreaming about his future. She is 30 and she works six days a week, from seven in the morning to seven at night, testing and welding printed circuit boards at the MSI factory.
“When I’m at work, I don’t have time to think about anything else than what I’m doing. If I don’t concentrate, or if I’m too slow, the supervisor yells at me,” she says. When she is off, she doesn’t have much time to dream about the future either.
“I hope to get a life that is healthy and stable, but that is not compatible with working at the factory. I’m considering quitting and going home to my parents soon,” she says after two months at the factory.
Because the factories experience extremely fast turnover, they have different rules meant to help them keep their workers. At the Taida factory in the Guangdong province, the worker cannot quit during the first month, which counts as a trial period, and in certain departments of the factory only two to three workers are allowed to quit each month. Permission is necessary to leave the job: if the workers quits without it, they will be withheld a month’s pay. Many decide to go ahead with it and face the consequences anyway.

Exploiting students

It is not only the workers, however, who do not find these conditions live up to their expectation and, on the contrary, think they should be criticized and decried. The high school and university students who come to Dell’s suppliers for internships lasting 3-12 months completely agree.
Some of them are forced to undertake the internship by their institution; others have chosen voluntarily to come to the factory for an internship, hoping to get a job that was relevant to their field of study. All of them end up performing the same tasks as the rest of the workers’, which are seldom relevant to their field of study.
One of them is Zhu Jun, a 24-year-old who has been an intern at the Taida factory for a year. His working day lasts 11 hours, and he alternates months where he works the day shifts with months where he works at night.
“My job is exactly the same as anyone else’s, and I feel like I’m wasting my time. I signed up for the internship, but it is not relevant to my study. It’s exhausting, and I am earning 3000 CNY (2025 DKK/270 EUR) a month. Sometimes I feel depressed,” he says, and continues:
“Night work is hard on the body, and when we’re at work I can smell strong toxic substances, such as zinc. It would be nice if the factory could limit that.”

Focus on improving conditions

When confronted with the questionable condition DanWatch has found during its visits to Dell’s suppliers, Deborah Albers, Principal Social Strategist at Dell, writes in an email:
“We present strong social and environmental demands to new suppliers, and we can disqualify a supplier if they do not live up to our high standards. Recently, we have entered a collaboration with Stanford University and Apple concerning a student program which will help our suppliers to improve the process of selection in relation to schools and advising students. We also hold big workshops, web seminars and other forms of training for suppliers, with the intent of rectifying some of the most common instances in which our standards are not being met, as we can see through our audits.”
When asked what Dell will do to rectify the conditions at the factories DanWatch has visited, Deborah Albers does not answer.
The names of the workers who have been interviewed have been changed, as the workers were afraid of being identified. Their real names are known to DanWatch.