Posts Tagged ‘Chinese Labor’

How bad off are Foxconn’s Chinese workers?

December 3, 2012

I’ve written several posts about Foxconn, the big subcontractor for Apple, Microsoft, Sony and other major electronics companies, which asks new hires to pledge that they won’t attempt suicide, allegedly because the work is so stressful.  If you have a cell phone, laptop computer, or electronic notepad, there’s a good chance you’re using a Foxconn-assembled product.

foxconn-mag-article-largeFollowing reports of labor unrest at Foxconn, James Fallows, who reports on China for the Atlantic Monthly, was allowed to visit.  What he saw was different from how I imagined the company.  Click on the links below to see photos of what he saw.

Inside Foxconn

Inside Foxconn 2 – Strolling

Inside Foxconn 3 – Some Dormitories

Inside Foxconn 4 – New Recruits, ‘Flying Tiger,’ CEO

Inside Foxconn 5 – Food

Back to Foxconn: Cameras, Clinic, Hoops

FoxConn1-thumb-102216I’m not sure what to think.  I recall how Americans such as Vice President Henry Wallace visited Siberia during World War Two, saw fake versions of Soviet labor camps and came back saying that life in the Gulag wasn’t so bad.   James Fallows is an experienced reporter, but his knowledge was limited to what he was told and what he was allowed to see on his visit.  He did not interview any Foxconn workers.

The workers were not starving and not in rags.   But their outward appearance says nothing about the stress of being waked up in the middle of the night, given a biscuit and a cup of tea and starting a 12-hour shift to fill an emergency order.  Nor about what it is like to be under video surveillance 24 hours a day, including in your own room.

I’m willing to accept Fallows’ verdict that Foxconn is not bad by Chinese standards and that the Chinese material standard of living has improved a lot during the past 10 or 20 years.  You should judge a nation not by where it is, but whether it is moving forward or backward, and, in terms of industrial development, China is moving forward.   China’s progress is a good thing for the United States, not a bad thing.  The better off the Chinese are, the better potential customers they are for American products.

Evidently there is a lot of labor unrest in China, but that does not prove there is no progress.  People don’t necessarily revolt just because they are poor and miserable.  If they did, humanity would have been in revolt for most of history.  People revolt when something to which they think they have a right is being taken away from them, or when hopes are aroused and then are not fulfilled.

foxconn_12332I think that what we have a right to expect of China and other low-wage nations is that they make a good-faith effort to obey their own laws and live up to their own standards.  I think that what we have a right to expect of American and other Western countries that operate in China is that they refrain from efforts to hold down wages and lobby the government against labor rights.

Click on Foxconn manufacturing workers complain of long hours, militant culture for a CNN report on the negative side of Foxconn.

Click on 3,000 to 4,000 Foxconn workers take part in protest for a report from China Business News.   Note that this would be fewer than 2 percent of the estimated 220,000 Foxconn employees at its Longhua campus in Shenzen province.

Click on Mr. China Comes to America for James Fallows’ optimistic view of the revival of manufacturing in the United States.

Click on Chinese workers asked for no-suicide pledge and  The debate over Asian sweatshops for earlier posts of mine.

Click on Sacon for the web log of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a Chinese pro-labor organization based in Hong Kong.

My opinions about the how employers treat Chinese workers are based on these and other articles.  I’d be interested in hearing from anyone with first-hand knowledge of China or Foxconn.

Mike Daisey made stuff up about Apple

March 19, 2012

Mike Daisey’s stage show about Apple Computer, to which I referred in a previous post, contained a lot of stuff that he just made up.  Foxconn and other components suppliers in China apparently don’t employ child labor on a large scale, as he claimed, though other assertions about labor conditions are confirmed by independent sources.  Some stories he told about encounters with Chinese workers apparently were invented.

Mike Daisey

All this came to light after the WBEZ radio in Chicago, the producers of This American Life, had second thoughts about a program they aired on Mike Daisey and distributed over Public Radio. They did their own investigation and issued a retraction.  Then they did a whole new program about their mistake.

Click on Retracting “Mr. Daisey and The Apple Factory” for This American Life’s press release.

Click on Retraction | This American Life for a link to an audio of WBEZ’s retraction program.

Click on Retraction PDF | This American Life for a transcript of WBEZ’s retraction program.

Click on Mike Daisey Statement on TAL for Daisey’s response.

Click on Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China for a factual account of Apple’s Chinese suppliers.

I give WBEZ credit.  The managers took corrective action as soon as they realized there was a problem.  They didn’t fire the whistleblower or try to cover up.    This is a level of integrity which ought to be routine in large organizations, but isn’t.

Mike Daisey is not a reporter, but what he did is something that reporters often are tempted to do.  They have a good news story, and reach for an extra embellishment that would make it an even better story, which discredits the whole thing.

The other thing to remember is that the problem isn’t just Apple Computer, but the whole system of outsourcing to China.  If this controversy results in an improvement in Apple’s labor practices, this will be good.  But if it merely results in shifting of business from Apple to other companies that are no better or possibly worse, nothing will be gained.

[Added 3/20/12]  Click on The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case for thoughts of James Fallows, formerly China correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.

Chinese flexibility and union rules

February 3, 2012

Last year President Barack Obama met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley executives, and asked what it would take to have Apple’s iPhone manufactured in the United States.  Jobs said nothing could bring iPhone manufacturing back to the U.S.  The New York Times published a good article last month explaining why.

Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul.  New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.   A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the [Apple] executive.  Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.  “The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

via NYTimes.com.

Thomas Friedman wrote a column saying American workers have no future unless they can compete with that Chinese awesomeness.  But I don’t know of any American workers who would get up at midnight for a 12-hour shift on a biscuit and cup of tea unless they were (1) slaves, (2) prisoners or (3) in the military, the latter of which was held up by President Obama in his State of the Union address as a role model for society.

Working conditions in China, in my opinion, are the result not so much of the invisible hand of competition as the iron fist of government suppression.  Workers aren’t free to join unions and bargain collectively for better conditions.  Complaining will get you blacklisted, and forming a union is against the law.  The only way of protest open is the traditional Chinese option of threatening or committing suicide.

In the United States, labor unions in their heyday had work rules.  They defined exactly what an individual worker could and couldn’t be required to do.  In return many of the unions took on the responsibility of training apprentices in the skills that employers now say are lacking.

I remember working on newspapers in the days of hot type, when composing rooms were ruled by the International Typographers Union, one of the strongest and also most democratically run U.S. unions.  One ITU rule was that nobody but a union member could touch type metal.  The compositors and typesetters would all watch any newcomer out of the corner of their eyes, and if he let his hand fall idly on a tray of type, all work in the composing room would instantly stop.  Good fun!

Like anything else, union work restrictions can be carried too far.  But the alternative is unscheduled 12-hour shifts on subsistence wages, and a biscuit and a cup of tea.

Click on Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class for the full New York Times article, which is excellent.

Click on Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China for another Times article on the same subject.

Click on Making It in America for a report in The Atlantic on a U.S. company’s struggle to keep manufacturing in the United States.

Click on Average Is Over for Thomas Friedman’s column.

Click on In Steve’s Time Machine, nobody rides clean for a good post on the left-libertarian Psychopolitik web log.

I use Apple products.  I don’t have any reason to think the late Steve Jobs or Apple Computer were or are worse than other Silicon Valley companies or executives, nor that electronics companies are worse in this respect than other kinds of companies. While I don’t think Jobs or Apple should be singled out, neither do I think “everybody does it” constitutes an excuse.