Tuesday, 21 July 2009
Trouble In Foxconn's Forbidden City
[Picture: A gatehouse in the Nanjing city walls]
From time to time people will ask me why exactly I blog anonymously, believe me when I say this has almost nothing to do with the Chinese government per se, and much more to do with trying to remain employable whilst speaking frankly about previous employers, especially when they include Foxconn. First off, whilst Foxconn have received a lot of bad press in the past, such as this story from the Daily Mail on work/living conditions at the Shenzhen plant, and the subsequent entirely justified outcry when Foxconn went after the Chinese journalists who also covered the story, they are actually quite a bit better than all the other fully certificated and inspected factories I saw during my time in China. Foxconn's Shenzhen factory is one of almost Dr. Evil mega-fortress proportions, the latest estimate of the workforce I heard whilst I was there was in excess of 300,000, with hundreds of new recruits arriving at the factory gates just outside my office every day. It was so big that I was assigned my own go-cart with driver to get around it, so it is quite possible that much went on that I was unaware of. That said, I find today's news of the suicide of an employee who lost a prototype sad but unsurprising.
Firstly, as perhaps the largest and most high-tech manufacturer operating in China, the company is subject to very high levels of corporate espionage. The high number of burglaries of Foxconn employee's residences I noted whilst I was there can perhaps be explained by Shenzhen's position as Crime City PRC, the company was the subject of numerous instances of trade-secret theft during my stay. The man who offered to share a taxi from Shenzhen airport and then promptly offered me a large amount of money for corporate documents certainly wasn't in town for the fresh air. As such the company is highly security conscious, and each employee is asked to sign a (perhaps unenforceable) non-disclosure agreement with strict and severe monetary penalties for non-compliance. All employees were told that possession of any unauthorised device onto which electronic information could be downloaded (including, ironically enough, the very iPods and MP3 players that are the factory's main product) would be grounds for instant dismissal. Cameras were also strictly prohibited, and this extended even to camera-phones (also a big Foxconn product).
Secondly, Foxconn's corporate structure is highly regimented. The most commonly used way to explain it amongst my colleagues was simply to describe each line-manager as a warlord manoeuvring for greater influence under the leadership of company president Terry Guo (郭台铭). As such even minor disobedience on the part of a subordinate brought high levels of pressure from the almost entirely Taiwanese upper-management. This extremely hierarchical structure is re-enforced from the very beginning of a mainland Chinese Foxconn worker's career by military-style drill (something that Taiwanese need not do, although most mainland Foxconn employees believe that this is simply how things are done in Taiwanese companies). One Taiwanese manager explained this to me in terms which could have come right out of the colonial play-book: "you have to shout orders at the mainlanders, you have to threaten them, it's what they are used to". My one brush with authority whilst I was there, a veritable chewing out I received for suggesting that I might help the publicity department improve the content on the lamentably bad Foxconn website during a particularly dry spell for my office, was simply a response to my infringement of this corporate warlordism.
My guess is that Sun Danyong (judging from his name probably a mainlander - most of the Taiwanese staff for some reason preferred to use their English names even in 100% Chinese-speaking offices) came up against the the heavy-handedness of the management as a result of his either accidental or intentional disposal of the prototype. This suicide has already led to calls for Apple to abandon Foxconn as a supplier, but this would be deeply wrong. You do not help 300,000 people by putting them out of work, you do not encourage better working conditions and practices by taking business away from what is probably among the most generous employers in Shenzhen and giving it to another China-based firm which may actually be worse. The people who work for Foxconn do so voluntarily, the workers are almost entirely fresh high-school and university graduates from provinces in the Chinese interior who send whatever money they can save to their families in an effort to improve their lot. They mainly look on the chance to work there as a great opportunity to gain experience - and many of them do gain valuable experience which they then take to other potentially better paying companies like Huawei.
Posted by Gilman Grundy at 14:17