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.
Following 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.
I’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.
I 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 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.