Author: Dejian (Ken) Zeng

Violations of Apple Supplier Code of Conduct Found in Pegatron Factory in Shanghai, China

Dejian (Ken) Zeng
China Labor Watch
Shanghai, China

Today (March 24, 2017), the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus (PRODUCT)RED Special Edition are available to order worldwide online and in stores, in recognition of more than 10 years of partnership between Apple and (RED) to fight AIDS. As Apple continues to enhance its corporate social responsibility, it is important to pay attention to the fundamental human rights  of the workers who have produced these special iPhones that contribute to the advancement of people’s right to health.

Last summer, I conducted an undercover investigation in an iPhone factory in China and documented violations of human rights there. I sent the letter below to the Apple Suppliers Responsibility team and received no response.

Dear Apple Suppliers Responsibility Team,

I am writing to report the violations of Apple Supplier Code of Conduct found in one of the Pegatron factories in Shanghai called Changshuo. And I am looking for a respond of these violations that I am reporting.

I am a current New York University student, pursing Master of Public Administration in Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. This summer I conducted an undercover investigation in Changshuo. From June 20 to Aug 5, 2016, I worked and lived there as an ordinary workers. Here is what I found:

Involuntary Overtime 

According to the Code of Conduct, “all overtime must be voluntary.” However, during my time in Changshuo, I could never get a permission of not overtime.

July 6, I talked with my supervisor for the first time about stop working overtime. I said I got a part-time position in the city which is better paid and I could not work during the overtime hours. I didn’t get an answer until 4 days later. And within these 4 days, there were back and forth arguments, interrogation, and criticisms from the managers. I was even taken to the manger that was four level higher than me. And the final answer I got was a “no.” Managers had very bad attitude and criticized me as “a selfish person.”

They reasoned that there was no one to take my station if I didn’t work overtime. If that was the case and the factory really does not have any mechanisms to handle the situation, how can it keeps its promise about voluntary overtime?

I even went to the Employee Services Center to complain later. The staff there said workers were all just cooperating with the production in the factory and they invalidated my claim that me being “forced” to do overtime. My complaint was never entered into the system in the end.

A more detailed story is available here ( I urge Apple and its suppliers to take actions, build up relevant mechanisms to deal with this situation and fulfill its promise of “voluntary overtime.”

Discrimination on Employment 

According to the Code of Conduct, “Supplier shall not require pregnancy or medical tests, except where required by applicable laws or regulations or prudent for workplace safety, and shall not improperly discriminate based on test results.”

In Changshuo, physical examination is required before workers get employed. Women who are pregnant and people with tattoo longer than 10 centimeters will not be able to get the employment. The doctor told us this clearly before we paid for and conducted the test.

Protections on Stations with Laser and Noise 

According to the Could of Conduct, “Supplier shall provide workers with job-related, appropriately maintained personal protective equipment and instruction on its proper use.” However, in Changshuo, this is unfulfilled. In stations that with the noise warning sign, workers are not provided earplugs, such as the stations using the airbrush to clean the housing. In stations that with the laser warning sign, workers are not provided eye protection equipments. I worried these situations might damage workers’ health in a long term.

In the end, I wish Apple and its suppliers can keep their promises according to the Apple Suppliers Code of Conduct and ensure the appropriate rights of workers are protected.

Additionally, I require Apple to respond to my comments giving further explanation and proper course of action to the situations that occurred during my time at Changshuo.


Dejian (Ken) Zeng
Master of Public Administration Candidate
Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
2016 Gallatin Global Human Rights Fellow
New York University

Mandatory “Voluntary” Overtime, Part II

Dejian (Ken) Zeng
China Labor Watch
Shanghai, China

July 19

After 30-something newly recruited workers were assigned to our line, I brought up the overtime issue again, this time directly with the line manager (LM):

LM: If the boss appoints me a person to take over your work when you’re away, then I would be fine with it.

Me: Weren’t 30 people assigned to our line recently? And because there are no empty spots, you even promoted two workers as off-line assistants. Can’t you just let them do my work when I’m gone?

LM: They were promoted because we’re cultivating them for our new line. You don’t understand the situation. Try to understand and be cooperative.

At that moment, I realized that the argument of “not having enough people” was just an excuse.

July 27

I sensed there might be street-level bureaucracy going on here. Thinking that the factory managers might have a different attitude, I went to the  employee services center to complain.

Staff in the center (S): Do you have a problem?

Me: Yeah. My group leader forced me to work overtime.

S: (laughing as if this was a ridiculous thought) What do you mean by “forced”? We call it “cooperate” (配合加班) when someone works overtime. You are cooperating in producing work for the factory.

Me: But during the training for new employees, the factory claimed that overtime is voluntary. Right?

S: You are all cooperating to work overtime. This is a factory. If you don’t work overtime, where are you gonna get your money? (smiling once again as if this was a really funny idea)

Final Comment: 

It is obvious that “voluntary overtime” are empty words and represent an act the factory puts on for its client, Apple. In practice, workers are forced to work overtime. Generally, they are required to stay inside the factory 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. As you can see from my diary, I didn’t succeed even when giving a proper reason. Why should people work overtime when they feel tired or just don’t want to work the extra hours?

However, it should also be noted that sometimes workers complain of not being able to work overtime and earn the double wages. They even organized a strike demanding an increase in overtime. I think this is really pathetic! Why should workers need to heavily depend on their overtime payment to maintain a decent life? Why does an 8 hour a day, 5 day a week work schedule seem to be a ridiculous demand in the eyes of the factory management?

When will workers be able to choose to work or not work according to their own wishes?

Mandatory “Voluntary” Overtime in a Chinese Factory

Dejian (Ken) Zeng
China Labor Watch
Shanghai, China

“Working overtime is voluntary in our factory,” a lecturer declared in one of the factory’s training sections for newly recruited workers.

My investigation has proved this to be a lie. The factory officials say this because mandatory overtime is one of the main priorities of their biggest client: Apple, Inc. The following are excerpts from my diary regarding this issue.

July 5

When the awful pain hit my back over and over again, I really wanted to escape. Since the afternoon, I feel like the muscles of my back are not able to hold up my body anymore. Whatever sitting positions I take, I can’t ease the pain. How am I gonna keep working for the next five hours? However, the 2.5 hours’ overtime with double wages is definitely appealing.

July 6

flow chart showing worker hierarchyI reminded the subgroup leader of my assembly line (see the figure for the factory’s management structure) about my application to stop working overtime. I told him I had gotten a part-time job in a Western restaurant in the city which is better paid. “Then why are you still working here?” He looked a bit upset.

I told him that they currently had only part-time positions for their busy hours at night. “At night? If you don’t get enough sleep, how are you gonna work effectively the next day?”

I argued that the job only lasts 4 hours, from 6pm to 10pm (the overtime for my shift starts at 5:30pm and ends at 7:30pm). I saw his hesitation, so I added that the money I would earn there in a few hours is more than what I get working whole day at the factory. Finally, he said, “Let me talk with the group leader first and I’ll let you know by tomorrow.”

July 7

Not long after the assembly line started running, the group leader came and argued with me about my “absurd” application:

Group Leader (GL): Five days and eight hours? Do you think it’s realistic? I am asking you: do you think it’s realistic? (in a tone full of criticism)

Me: For me? I think it is realistic.

GL: Realistic? Then YOU tell me who will do your work when you are gone? Your subgroup leader? Me? Or the higher level bosses?

Me: Then…then you can change me to another station whose work can be done by one person. Like this one right next to me. Plus, it’s just two hours a day.  (Generally, there are two to three people working on one station, but the girl who sits next to me has been working by herself for a month and is able to follow the speed of the assembly line.)

GL: Don’t you know you are such a selfish person?


GL : She is a woman. What if I let you do your work all by yourself for a day? You should really try.

[More reasoning and argument.]

GL: So, you go back and think about this again. Try to understand our perspective.

Me: But you should understand mine also. I’ll get much more money there than from here.

GL: How much are they paying you?

Me: 40 yuan ($6) per hour. They need people who speak a bit of English.

[He then asked detailed questions to check whether I was lying, and I responded well.]

GL: (After being silent for a while) Okay. Go back and think about it again. We will think about it also. (He walked away.)

I don’t understand why not working overtime is seen as such a sin. And the “interrogation” and criticism make no sense to me. Am I obligated to work overtime?

July 8

During lunch break, I asked the group leader about his final decision. “Will let you know before you finish work.” He walked away, seeming annoyed. Around 4pm, I was taken to see the line manager in his office. He knew the details of my situation already but I was asked to brief him. His attitude was better than the group leader’s: “I’ve known about your issue for a while, but every station has equal importance in the assembly line. It’s really hard for us to organize it.” He didn’t give me a final decision. We waited for the section manager to come, because I would need to get his permission. After 15 minutes, I was sent back to my station since the section manger was still unavailable.

July 9

Before I finished work, I asked the group leader again about stopping overtime. The following is what happened.

Me: Group Leader, can I stop working overtime next week?

GL: Yes for next Monday. No for Tuesday. Yes, when I have enough workers. No when I don’t. I talked with my boss. He said you’ll need to see the higher-level managers. They’ll need to interview you. So, that’s it.

Me: Can I just not work overtime for one month?

GL: NO! (Said while walking away again, without even turning to look at me.)

[To be continued]

Going Undercover!

Dejian (Ken) Zeng
China Labor Watch
Shanghai, China

“The grievance is building up. Let’s go to Shanghai!” Li Qiang, Executive Director of China Labor Watch, told me this before I left New York, when I had been anticipating going to Shenzhen. The grievance is that of the workers in a factory owned by the Taiwanese Pegatron Group, one of Apple’s suppliers. The workers’ basic salary increased slightly to align with the minimum wage set by the government, but they experienced a big loss in income with the elimination of their meal stipends.

We were waiting for a strike.

Thus, the plan for my summer project changed dramatically. In addition to switching my location from Shenzhen to Shanghai, I also changed my research methodology. Instead of just conducting interviews with workers, I decided to go undercover and become a true worker myself in order to collect first-hand information. With only a backpack, a few shorts and T-shirts, pens and a notebook, and an old-fashion phone, I flew to Shanghai alone. With anxiety and passion, I walked into the unknown.

The factory is located in a suburban section of Pudong New Area. This quiet neighborhood still includes a rural village, which is vastly different from the brand-new Shanghai Disneyland just 5 kilometers away. It took me 20 minutes to walk from the subway station to the factory, where dozens of people seeking work were waiting before the factory door with their luggage. Some of them looked happy but some seemed a bit worried. Security guards yelled angrily since some of them were blocking the entrance. It was a busy day.

Researchers from CLW had visited the factory in advance to ensure that it was hiring workers. Generally, people just need to appear at the front door of the factory with their ID cards, and a very simple interview would be conducted there. If nothing were to go wrong with the physical examination and the rest of the procedures, they would sign a contract and become an official worker. The factory would take care of their meals and accommodation starting from that day.

Most of the people seeking work there are migrant workers with a rural hukou (household registration) status. Worried that my urban hukou status would raise suspicion, I contacted one of the workers who was referring people to the factory for assistance, but surprisingly, the staff did not care about my hukou status at all. The interview took only 30 seconds. I was asked to show my hands and recite the alphabet. Before I could even figure out what had happened, I was being allowed inside the factory.

A new journey started there, of ethnographic research that includes observations, interviews with workers, and documenting my personal experiences to get a better understanding of the Chinese worker and the operation of the labor movement through a human rights framework. During the past two months, I have worked on the assembly line, lived with the other workers in dorms, and have been excited to share the feeling of being a Chinese worker. I keep a diary every day, and my observations will be published at the end of the project.

street with office building

houses next to water

a river with trees in background

grassy plaza in front of building

Walking Into the Mist

Dejian (Ken) Zeng
China Labor Watch
Shenzhen, China

I am Dejian Zeng, a master’s student studying public administration at NYU Wagner.

I am also from mainland China.

This seems to be a very unusual identify for a young man trying to pursue a career in the human rights field in the United States. I didn’t witness the Cultural Revolution with my own eyes. I never stood alongside those enthusiastic students in Tienanmen Square in 1989. I was born during an era when China’s economy was rapidly developing and when millions of people were getting out of poverty. I belong to a generation that has an indifference to politics.

How did I get here, then?

Let me begin my story with the summer of 2014: sun shone through the beautiful glass roof and was reflected onto the expensive marble floor of the newly built Beijing South Railway Station, the most modernized train station in China. I stood in the middle of it, watching people coming and going through that grand building. And I felt sad. How can life here be so different? I asked myself. What I had seen just outside was a totally different world.

Located a five-minute’s walk from the South Station is the so-called “Happiness Village,” whose other name is the Beijing Petitioner Village. Because of its proximity to the State Bureau of Letters and Calls, the administrative office hearing grievances from petitioners,  there are hundreds living there who suffer from injustice, with the faint hope of one day obtaining what people call justice and human rights. Since 2012, I had been doing research on social unrest and petitioners in China, and visiting the petitioner village was part of that research.

I witnessed fear in the eyes of newly arrived petitioners. I felt the gloom of an old man who had been petitioning for 30 years. These people came to the village and never left, no matter how horrible their living conditions were, and no matter how terribly their lives had been ruined. Some were there because of their destroyed houses and lost lands. Some because of corruption and unjust sentences. And many—hundreds or even thousands—because of unpaid wages and terrible working conditions. They were fighting for the dignity of being human.

From the thousands of cases I collected, I saw a different China—a China I wanted to fix, a China I wanted to make better.

Before I left the petitioner village, a female petitioner grabbed my hands and looked into my eyes. Then she asked the question I have been asking myself since: “You will help us, right?”

Would I? Human rights advocacy is so hard to do in a country like China, which has such extensive economic and political power.

But I was walking in the mist and couldn’t see what was in front of me. There are always possibilities. And, change would happen. In the labor rights arena, the number of strikes have skyrocketed in the past two years. There were over 2,700 strikes and protests in 2015—more than double of those in 2014. This trend has intensified in 2016, with more than 500 protests occurring in January alone. And laborers are taking bolder actions to defend their rights, which leads me to my summer project (which I will talk more about in my next post).

“Yes, I will!” I told that lady, faithfully looking into her eyes.

The sky is blue. The sun is shining.