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Microsoft Mouse Supplier Accused of Virtually Imprisoning Workers

PC Magazine  |  April 13, 2010  |  Share  |  Source article

Microsoft said Tuesday that it has agreed to investigate claims that a contract manufacturer of some of its peripheral products has been subjecting its employees to illegal and even inhumane working conditions.

KYE Systems Corp., also known as Dongguan Kunying Computer Products Co. Ltd., was accused by the National Labor Committee of confining workers to dormitories and complying them to work up to 14.7 hours at a shift, including overtime that far exceeded China's legal limits. The total pay averaged about 1500 RMB per month, or just $218 in American dollars.

One worker quoted by the NLC said workers were "like prisoners".

The April 13 report alleges that several OEMs, including Hewlett-Packard, have used KYE in the past. Microsoft manufactures its Microsoft Life Cam VX-7000, basic Optical Mouse, and and the Wireless Notebook Laser Mouse 6000 at the facility, the report claims.

In response to a request for comment, Microsoft said that it maintains a vendor code of conduct on its vendor relations page, and that it was investigating the report.

"Microsoft is committed to the fair treatment and safety of workers employed by our vendors," Microsoft said in a statement. "Microsoft has invested heavily in a vendor accountability program and robust independent third-party auditing program to ensure conformance to the Microsoft Vendor Code of Conduct.

"We are aware of the NLC report and we have commenced an investigation," the company added. "We take these claims seriously, and we will take appropriate remedial measures in regard to any findings of vendor misconduct."

KYE is a Taiwan contract manufacturer with a manufacturing facility in Dongguan City, Guangdong. The report examined working conditions at the company's main manufacturing facility, based on interviews with workers. The NLC also provided photographs of what it said were KYE workers being treated unfairly, including photographs of cramped dormitory rooms and workers asleep at their desks.

KYE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"The shifts are not only long, stretching up to 15 hours, the work is also monotonous, numbing and exhausting as the young workers frantically race to complete their mandatory production goals," the NLC's report claims. "Twenty or thirty workers on a line must complete 2,000 Microsoft mice in 12 hours. The workers' hands and fingers are constantly moving, many suffering abrasions and cuts, since the connectors must be inserted very closely together. Once workers meet the production goal, management raises it."

The report partially blamed Microsoft and other OEMs for not enforcing their own vendor codes of conduct, but noted that KYE management typically accompanied inspectors on site visits, and prepped workers to answer questions in a favorable light.

"Corporate audits of the KYE factory by Microsoft and other high tech companies have also failed miserably over the last several years," the report found. "At the KYE factory the process of preparing for monitoring visits is somewhat subtle. Management instructs the workers to 'answer the clients' questions very carefully.' They should say they never work more than 12 hours a day and overtime is less than 36 hours a month. Workers are told to respond they are 'very satisfied' when asked about working conditions, their dorms and meals. To make this sound even more 'authentic,' workers are told to 'spontaneously' mention other factories where they had worked in the past, where conditions were 'awful.' They are more 'hopeful' now that that they are working at KYE."

Working conditions

KYE typically hires young women between 18 and 25, the report alleges, because they are easier to control. Before the recession, up to 1,000 "work study" teenagers, typically 16 to 17 years old but as young as 14, were hired. Each dorm room houses 14 women, typcially without air conditioning, and with a bucket to "shower" with.

"For the approximately 300 people on each floor, there are two public restrooms on either end of the floor, each with ten bathroom stalls; ten sinks with cold water; five cold water spigots where workers can wash their clothes by hand; and three hot water spigots where workers fetch hot water in a small plastic bucket to take a sponge bath," the report said. "Workers wanting to charge their cell phones have to go to the 'electrical charging room' on the first floor of building 'F' during the regulated hours."

At work, the day begins at 7:15 AM, according to the NLC, with a worker required to hear speeches before beginning a four-hour shift with one unpaid break. Workers receive an hour and a half for lunch and rest, before working until 5:20 PM, and receiving 50 minutes for an evening meal. On average, a typical worker was at the factory over 83 hours per week.

Because the pay is so poor, and workers are typically supporting relatives, many work an additional 3.8 hours of overtime until 10:15 PM, the NLC found. By law, Chinese workers may only work a total of 36 hours per month, it said.

Workers typically purchase their own meals, which costs little - about $31.60 per month or 216 RMB - but still eats into the workers' take-home pay, the report said.

According to the report, KYE forbade workers from talking, listening to music, using the toilet or even drinking water during the work period, and fined and humiliated workers which dropped products on the ground. Company managers occasionally sexually humiliated workers as well. When walking to and from the factory, workers were forbidden to talk to other workers who lived in different dorms.

Workers were also restricted from leaving the factory compound except for designated periods, according to the report. Failure to return by curfew could lead to fines of up to a week's pay.

Before a new minimum-wage law established a 770 RMB per month wage ($112.67, or about 65 cents per hour), KYE workers typically worked for the equivalent of 43 cents per hour, after deductions for food, the NLC said. According to the NLC, KYE workers were actually paid correctly, but below subsistence levels.

"By far the largest issue regarding wages is that China's manufacturing workers, even at high tech electronic factories such as KYE, cannot possibly survive on the legal minimum wage," the report concluded. "It is common for overtime to account for more than 60 percent of their total earnings.

"As things stand now, workers at the KYE factory told us they have absolutely no hope of entering the middle-class if things remain the way they are. To be a worker at KYE means you must learn to eke out a primitive existence, working enormous hours while earning below subsistence level wages, and having no access to the most fundamental human or labor rights protections."

Most workers flee KYE after three months, the NLC found.

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