Newsmen sued for allegations about iPod plant work ethic

The contract manufacturer of the iPod music player has filed lawsuits against two Chinese journalists who wrote articles about working conditions at factories where iPods are made, according to Chinese press reports.

Hong Fujin Precision Industry Co. is suing the journalists from the Shanghai-based China Business News for defamation, according to the English-language Web site of the official People’s Daily newspaper.

But the company, the largest exporter of IT products in China, slashed the amount it is seeking in damages to 1 renminbi (around 20 cents) because the original figure, 30 million renminbi, had blurred the issue at hand, a company representative said Thursday.

The company also requested that the courts unfreeze the journalists bank accounts and other assets.

“… To refocus the public’s attention back to the real issue, (Hong Fujin) will withdraw the provisional seizure motion,” it said in a statement posted on the Taiwan Stock Exchange by its Taiwanese parent company, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd. The companies operate under the trade name, Foxconn Technology Group.

But the company also added the publisher of the report, the China Business News, to the lawsuit as a defendant.

The journalists are accused of defaming Hong Fujin during their coverage of Apple Computer Inc.’s investigation into working conditions at factories that make its iPod Nano music player.

Hong Fujin is seeking redress through the defamation lawsuit after a whirlwind of bad publicity provoked by allegations that it treated workers poorly. The story was one of many to follow in the wake of an article by the British newspaper “Mail on Sunday” alleging long hours, low pay and poor working conditions at the Longhua, China, site, which produces iPods as well as other IT products.

Apple Computer Inc. investigated the claims, and found Hong Fujin in compliance with the majority of its requirements despite several violations of the company’s supplier code of conduct, including unsatisfactory living and transportation conditions for workers. Hong Fujin is building new dormitories for workers and seeking ways to improve the way it busses employees from factories to dormitories.

Vindicated by the report, Hong Fujin decided to sue the China Business News and two journalists responsible for a June 15 story that it called “maliciously false.”

One charge in the June 15 story that Hong Fujin took issue with in its statement is an allegation that for every 1,000 workers at the Longhua site, 500 have pre-existing maladies.

“In fact, we have documented statistics to show how over 99 percent of our employees are healthy and fit,” Hong Fujin said in the statement

But on its blog site, the China Business News defended itself on the point. The story was about three female workers who collapsed on the production line, and it quotes a “Miss Ho” from Foxconn as saying that the workers collapsed due to pre-existing conditions. “For every 1,000 new hires, 500 have pre-existing illnesses,” ‘Miss Ho’ is quoted as saying in the story.

The story does not give any full names of anyone cited for information in the story, and gives a false name to one worker, presumably covering his identification for protection. The surname, “Ho” is common in China.

The Shenzhen Intermediate Court, which accepted the case, froze the assets of the two reporters, Weng Bao and Wang You.

On Tuesday, journalist rights group Reporters Without Borders published an open letter to Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs, calling on Jobs and Apple to pressure Foxconn to drop the suit.

Representatives from Foxconn did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

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