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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 24 July 2024

Married 'not allowed': Apple supplier Foxconn rejects women from India iPhone jobs

Many of the people who spoke to Reuters also attributed Foxconn's hiring practices to what they said were the company's concerns that married Hindu women wear metal toe rings known in southern India as metti and necklaces called thaali to signify the bond of marriage

Reuters Published 25.06.24, 04:30 PM
Representational image.

Representational image. File picture.

The two women standing near the entrance to the iPhone factory in southern India were upset.

Parvathi and Janaki, sisters in their 20s, had come to the plant, run by major Apple supplier Foxconn, for interviews in March 2023 after seeing job ads on WhatsApp. But they had been turned away at the main gate by a security officer who stopped them and asked: "Are you married?"

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"We didn't get the jobs as we both are married," Parvathi later said in an interview at her village shanty. "Even the auto-rickshaw driver who took us from the bus stand to the Foxconn facility told us they wouldn't take married women," she added. "We thought we would still give it a shot."

A Reuters investigation has found that Foxconn has systematically excluded married women from jobs at its main India iPhone assembly plant, on the grounds they have more family responsibilities than their unmarried counterparts. S. Paul, a former human-resources executive at Foxconn India, said the company's executives verbally convey the recruitment rules to its Indian hiring agencies, which Foxconn tasks with scouting for candidates, bringing them in for interviews and employing them.

Foxconn typically doesn't hire married women because of "cultural issues" and societal pressures, said Paul, who said he left the company in August 2023 for a better-paying role at a consulting firm. The company's view was that there were "many issues post-marriage," Paul added. Among them: Women "have babies after marriage."

"Risk factors increase when you hire married women," he said.

Paul's account was corroborated by 17 employees from more than a dozen Foxconn hiring agencies in India, and four current and former Foxconn human-resources executives. Twelve of these sources spoke on condition of anonymity.

The agents and the Foxconn HR sources cited family duties, pregnancy and higher absenteeism as reasons why Foxconn did not hire married women at the plant, located at Sriperumbudur, near the city of Chennai. Many of these people also said jewelry worn by married Hindu women could interfere with production.

The ban isn't absolute. Three former Foxconn HR executives told Reuters that the Taiwan-headquartered manufacturer relaxes the practice of not hiring married women during high-production periods when it sometimes faces labor shortages. In some cases, hiring agencies help female candidates conceal their marital status to secure jobs, Reuters found.

In response to questions from Reuters, Apple and Foxconn acknowledged lapses in hiring practices in 2022 and said they had worked to address the issues. All the discriminatory practices documented by Reuters at the Sriperumbudur plant, however, took place in 2023 and 2024. The companies didn't address those instances. They also didn't specify whether any of the lapses in 2022 related to the hiring of married women.

While Indian law doesn't bar companies from discriminating in hiring based on marital status, Apple's and Foxconn's policies prohibit such practice in their supply chains.

Apple told Reuters it upholds the "highest supply chain standards in the industry," and noted that Foxconn employs some married women in India.

"When concerns about hiring practices were first raised in 2022 we immediately took action and worked with our supplier to conduct monthly audits to identify issues and ensure that our high standards are upheld," Apple said in a statement. "All of our suppliers in India hire married women, including Foxconn."

In a statement, Foxconn said it "vigorously refutes allegations of employment discrimination based on marital status, gender, religion or any other form."

TICKET OUT OF POVERTY

The exposure of the factory's hiring practices turns a new spotlight on one of the highest-profile foreign investments in India.

Apple, one of the world's most valuable companies, is positioning India as an alternative manufacturing base to China amid geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for its part, sees Foxconn's iPhone factory and Apple's broader supply chain in India as helping the world's most populous country move up the economic value chain.

Apple, Foxconn and other big companies also play a key role in another imperative of Modi's: the removal of societal impediments that prevent many Indian women from getting jobs.

While Foxconn employs thousands of women in India, discrimination on the basis of marital status risks undercutting Modi's aims.

Modi's administration has tried to overhaul labor laws to make hiring and firing easier and prevent gender-based discrimination in recruitment. Still, those measures are yet to be implemented and would not specifically address discrimination on the basis of marital status.

The hiring curbs at the iPhone plant also show the challenge for both Apple and Foxconn in upholding their stated global standards of inclusion while expanding their supply chains in this fast-growing but largely conservative country.

Between January 2023 and May 2024, Reuters made more than 20 trips to Sriperumbudur and spoke to dozens of jobseekers about the hiring process. Reporters also reviewed a candidate information pamphlet, dozens of job ads and records of WhatsApp discussions in which four of Foxconn's third-party recruiters stated to prospective candidates that only unmarried women were eligible for assembly jobs. The ads make no mention of the hiring of men.

For some Indian women, a job building iPhones is a ticket out of extreme poverty. The Foxconn positions offer food and accommodation and a monthly paycheck of about $200, roughly in line with India's per capita GDP. Such jobs are the kind of opportunities offered by multinational companies that the government has encouraged to help lift living standards.

Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer, outsources its hiring of assembly-line workers to third-party vendors, who must be registered with the Tamil Nadu state government as official Foxconn service providers. The hiring agents scout for and screen the candidates, who ultimately are interviewed and selected by Foxconn. These same vendors directly employ the workers and manage the payroll, getting paid about $10 to $15 a month per employee, three hiring agents said.

Apple and Foxconn each require their suppliers to adhere to their respective codes of conduct.

Foxconn's code states it is committed to a workforce free of "unlawful discrimination," and that the company and its suppliers should not discriminate over marital status, gender and other factors in hiring. Apple's code for suppliers states that they and their subsidiaries, as well as any subcontractors, should not discriminate against any worker based on age, gender, marital status and other matters.

In its statement, Foxconn said, "We enhanced our management process for hiring agencies in India in 2022 and identified four agencies that were posting ads that did not meet our standards," without naming the agencies. "We took corrective action with those agencies and more than 20 job ads were removed."

Further, Foxconn said that in its latest round of hiring, almost 25% of the women it hired were married, without specifying the number or where they were employed.

Modi's office, and India's federal ministries of labor, commerce and information technology, did not respond to requests for comment about Foxconn not hiring married women on its assembly lines. Tamil Nadu officials, including the chief minister's office and the state ministries of industry and labor, also did not respond to questions.

Reuters could not establish when the practice of not hiring married women for assembly line work began. Thanga Rasu, a recruiter at Go Staffing, a hiring vendor for Foxconn, said in November 2023 that he had attended meetings with Foxconn officials for around a year and the "unmarried rule" had been in place during that period.

Assembly lines entirely or predominantly staffed by women have emerged in some industries in India. That's in line with Modi's efforts to boost female labor-force participation – which official data shows is around 37%, compared with almost 80% for men.

Scooter maker Ola Electric is an example of another company with a focus on hiring women. Bhavish Aggarwal, the founder, said on X in May that Ola runs one of the largest "women only automotive plants," where almost 5,000 work, with a plan to "grow to tens of thousands in the coming years." Ola declined to comment about its hiring practices.

'BETTERMENT OF SOCIETY'

Despite the country's economic boom, many women in India remain confined to household chores and childcare. Since taking office in 2014, Modi has put women at the center of his government's plans to increase incomes.

"When women prosper, the world prospers," Modi said in an address to a ministerial conference on women's empowerment last August. "We must work to remove the barriers that restrict their access to markets, global value chains and affordable finance."

Apple and Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry, are central to those goals. When Apple CEO Tim Cook visited India last year, Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said he discussed "job creation especially for women" with the executive. Vaishnaw's then-deputy, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, has also lauded Apple's ecosystem for generating more than 150,000 jobs in the past three years.

Apple, in turn, has bet on India as its next growth frontier and a pillar of its efforts to shift production beyond China. India will account for about 9% to 14% of iPhone production globally this year, compared with 86% to 91% in China, according to Taiwan-based Isaiah Research. Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst at TF International Securities, has predicted India's share could reach and even exceed 20% this year. Apple did not address a Reuters query about these estimates.

India is also important to Foxconn, which last year exported devices worth $5 billion from the country, according to commercially available customs data. Led by chairman Young Liu, Foxconn in recent years has expanded in India, where it makes iPhones and products for other smartphone brands, including China's Xiaomi, and plans to move into AirPods and chipmaking.

In January, Modi's government awarded Liu India's third-highest civilian honor. "Let's do our part for manufacturing in India and for the betterment of society," Liu said on receiving the award.

Most iPhones made in India are produced at the Sriperumbudur plant, about 25 miles west of Chennai. The factory began producing the Apple devices in 2019. It now employs thousands of women on its assembly lines.

In a forum hosted by the Center for Emerging Markets at Northeastern University in 2022, Josh Foulger, then a top Foxconn executive in India, said the company was "completely aligned with" the Indian government's plans to boost manufacturing. He described how Foxconn opted to hire a workforce in India that overwhelmingly comprised women.

"For me it was a no-brainer," Foulger said, crediting his mother, a former school teacher, with giving him the idea. "We tried it and it was a fantastic success."

Foulger said women migrated from around India to work for Foxconn, attracted by its provision of safe accommodation. He added that Foxconn also hires men – "amazing guys who program all the robots" – as technicians and engineers.

Foulger, who left Foxconn earlier this year, declined to comment about the manufacturer's hiring methods.

Many of the people who spoke to Reuters also attributed Foxconn's hiring practices to what they said were the company's concerns that married Hindu women wear metal toe rings known in southern India as metti and necklaces called thaali to signify the bond of marriage.

These customary ornaments could interfere with the manufacturing process, and married women won't typically remove them, according to five of the hiring vendors and three current and former HR executives. Electrostatic discharge could occur when metals come into contact with phone components, potentially damaging them, one current and one former Foxconn HR executive said.

Additionally, three current and former engineers for Foxconn and an affiliate company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said women were screened for metals on entering and leaving the assembly lines, and that the prohibition on ornaments helped security officers prevent any theft of components.

Reuters could not independently ascertain whether ornaments affected the manufacturing process.

In its statement, Foxconn said "married women are welcome to wear traditional metal ornaments while working in our facilities," without elaborating.

Suhasini Rao, a Bengaluru-based lawyer specializing in Indian labor regulations, said it would be reasonable for a business to require a person to remove ornaments for safety or quality-control reasons as a condition of employment, provided that was conveyed clearly.

Discrimination solely on the basis of marital status, while not prohibited in the private sector under Indian law, "may interfere with an individual's fundamental right to freedom of trade and occupation and might be struck down by the courts, if challenged," Rao said.

There is legal precedent on the subject of firing married women on the grounds of absenteeism.

In 1965, India's Supreme Court struck down a pharmaceutical company's practice of terminating the employment of women in its packing and labeling department when they got married.

The company, Messrs International Franchises, had argued that it required consistent attendance that "cannot be expected from married women," and that there was "greater absenteeism among married women."

The four judges determined there was "nothing to show that married women would necessarily be more likely to be absent than unmarried women," and "there is no good and convincing reason why such a rule should continue." Reuters was unable to determine if the company is still operating.

Foxconn has faced scrutiny over the years for its culture and work environment, most notably in China, where it runs the world's biggest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou with 200,000 workers.

A spate of suicides by Foxconn employees in China more than a decade ago prompted questions from their families and labor rights groups about work conditions. Foxconn largely attributed the deaths to workers' personal problems, and set up counseling hotlines.

In India, protests broke out at the Sriperumbudur plant in December 2021, leading to a brief production halt, after more than 250 workers suffered food poisoning.

That episode led Apple to dispatch independent auditors to assess conditions in workers' facilities. Both Apple and Foxconn said they found some dormitories and dining rooms did not meet required standards, and Apple briefly put the plant on probation. Two days before the plant partially resumed operations in January 2022, Apple said that it would continue to monitor conditions at workers' dorms and dining facilities.

MARRIED 'NOT ALLOWED'

In addition to the sisters, Parvathi and Janaki, Reuters spoke to five other women who said they were rejected by Foxconn's hiring vendors on the grounds that they were married.

Priya Darshini received the news in a WhatsApp group chat, which a recruiter from SS Enterprises, one of the hiring agencies, had created to scout for candidates.

Darshini posed questions to the group in August 2023, according to a transcript reviewed by Reuters: "I have a baby. Are there child care facilities? Could I bring my baby? Age is 2. Salary?"

The recruiter, T. Balu, sent a curt reply: Married "not allowed."

Asked about his response, Balu told Reuters that Foxconn does not hire married women, who wear ornaments, because it wants to ensure a metal-free zone.

Darshini, who is in her late 20s, told Reuters she is seeking help from friends and family to find a job that would allow her to care for her child.

Paul, the former HR executive, said Foxconn management advises its hiring vendors not to mention marital and age criteria in their job ads.

But in some instances, vendors did not heed that advice.

"Job vacancy for Only Female … iPhone Manufacturing … Age: 19 to 30 Unmarried," said an ad posted by a recruiter at Proodle, a hiring agency for Foxconn, in a publicly accessible WhatsApp group in February 2024.

A YouTube ad for Foxconn jobs posted by recruiter Cumans Manpower in July last year sought "unmarried only" female candidates aged 18 to 28.

A recruiter with SS Enterprises also posted a Facebook ad in September 2023 that specified the same requirements and contained a link to a Foxconn job application. The ad became inaccessible in late May after Reuters sent questions to SS Enterprises for this story.

When Reuters visited Sriperumbudur in March 2023, a recruiter was standing outside the Foxconn plant and wearing a badge of the hiring agency Groveman Global. She handed a job pamphlet to a Reuters reporter. It advertised mobile-phone manufacturing roles, which the recruiter, who identified herself only as Kaviya, said were Foxconn assembly positions.

The pamphlet stated the jobs were for "unmarried women" aged 18 to 32, with a monthly salary of about $163 for those who live in company hostels and $220 for those who don't. Foxconn doesn't hire married women, Kaviya told Reuters, without elaborating.

None of the hiring agencies identified by Reuters responded to questions about the job ads and employment practices at the Foxconn plant.

Proodle, Cumans, Groveman and SS Enterprises are among the agencies registered by Foxconn as contractors with the Tamil Nadu government for providing assembly line helpers, according to copies of contractor licenses Reuters obtained from the state government under India's Right to Information Act.

Suppliers that violate Apple's code of conduct can face probation, suspension and even lose their entire business with Apple. The company said in its 2024 supply chain report that since 2009, it has removed 25 manufacturing supplier facilities and 231 material processors for failure to meet its standards.

In China, at least six online job ads reviewed by Reuters show workers engaged in iPhone assembly at Foxconn's Zhengzhou plant can earn $400 to $800 a month, more than double the wages in India. The Chinese ads do not mention marital status or gender, saying anyone aged 18 to 48 can apply.

CONCEALING STATUS

In Sriperumbudur, a road junction a little over a mile from the Foxconn plant is a hotspot for recruiters to meet candidates. Many jobseekers travel with their families from far-flung villages; if hired they are expected to start immediately.

If a married woman somehow makes it inside for an interview during the typical hiring season, Foxconn officials remain on the lookout for telltale metal ornaments, according to one current and one former Foxconn HR executive. Those wearing the ornaments are then turned away with the explanation that there had been a miscommunication or that recruitment had been paused, the people said.

But there are ways to bypass the system.

After she and her sister were turned away at the factory gate, Parvathi told Reuters that their recruiter, whose name she did not know, told them they should have removed their ornaments to conceal their marital status and gain entry.

Five recruitment agency officials also said candidates can conceal their marital status to secure jobs if their Indian government-issued ID card, known as Aadhaar, still reflects them as unmarried.

M. Malathi, a Cumans recruiter, said candidates who had not updated their marital status on Aadhaar and were willing to remove ornaments "could be helped by manpower agencies, and Cumans does help."

Reuters spoke to a married woman from a town near Chennai, who said she used that strategy to work at Foxconn for a year, undetected, before quitting for personal reasons in 2023.

"It helped that I didn't wear metal ornaments to work," said the woman. Reuters is withholding her name so as not to harm her future prospects.

"You don't need many educational qualifications. I liked it there. I want to go back when the opportunity comes."

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