Sunday, 1 May 2011

Foxconn, again.

According to a report in Saturday's Guardian, two - somewhat oddly named - NGOs, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, have released a study of the working conditions at Foxconn's factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu. Foxconn, where I used to work, has long been accused of poor treatment of its workers.

Amongst the other disclosures in the report:

"■ Excessive overtime is routine, despite a legal limit of 36 hours a month. One payslip, seen by the Observer, indicated that the worker had performed 98 hours of overtime in a month.

■ Workers attempting to meet the huge demand for the first iPad were sometimes pressured to take only one day off in 13.

■ In some factories badly performing workers are required to be publicly humiliated in front of colleagues.

■ Crowded workers' dormitories can sleep up to 24 and are subject to strict rules. One worker told the NGO investigators that he was forced to sign a "confession letter" after illicitly using a hairdryer. In the letter he wrote: "It is my fault. I will never blow my hair inside my room. I have done something wrong. I will never do it again."

■ In the wake of a spate of suicides at Foxconn factories last summer, workers were asked to sign a statement promising not to kill themselves and pledging to "treasure their lives"."

My take on this report is that a lot of this is nothing new. The biggest item is the news that overtime limits are still being exceeded, something that Foxconn has pledged to prevent. However, when managers claim that the overtime is voluntary, they are, at least in my experience, speaking the truth.

Likewise, taking only one day off in thirteen to meet a short-term goal is nothing new either. During my time at Foxconn, which admittedly was in the patenting department, I also worked similar periods of time without a day off.

The humiliation of poorly performing workers is not a great surprise, since this kind of punishment by public loss of face is a not uncommon feature of Chinese culture, as well as that of many other East Asian countries, particularly Japan. However, I rarely saw it in my own corner of the company, and it was never taken to the extreme. The same with the self-criticism letter.

In fact, the thing which strikes me most about this report is the degree to which it shows an improvement over those of previous years. The report may pooh-pooh basic pay of 1,350 yuan a month in Chengdu, but it is significantly better that the 800-1,000 paid to people working as waiters, hairdressers etc. 24 people to a room may be considered cramped, but it is significantly better than the 100 to a room reported in 2006. You may even consider that university students in China often sleep 8 to a room and that this is the case for most of the workers I knew at Foxconn. The anti-suicide pledge is strange, but it is hard to see how it is objectionable, nor should even 14 suicides in a year be that surprising in a factory employing more than 500,000 people.

At the very least, there seems little in this report about Foxconn itself to justify the well-intended but somewhat odd editorial in Sunday's Observer, in which Lucy Siegle segues from conditions in Cambodian sweat shops (no doubt appalling) to the suicide of a South Korean man (nothing to do with 'the developing world'). Oddness aside, her central point is this:

" . . . this is a battle for human decency and that if the price of a product is to condemn fellow humans to grab a few hours sleep cheek by jowl in a concrete dormitory for a pittance, that is surely too high a price."

This is fine, but in the specific case of Foxconn, the report which she says "lays bare" conditions at electronic manufacturers in general, no one is 'condemned' to work there. Most Foxconn workers arrive from far poorer condition in the countryside, where earnings of 500 yuan a month are common. They exchange the dead-end lives in the countryside for far better earnings, and accommodation in the main no worse than that in which most Chinese university students live. By Chinese standards, there wages are not "a pittance", nor are their living conditions terrible.

For most of them, Foxconn offers the opportunity to gain new skills which many of them then market to other companies, especially Huawei. I support all constructive efforts to improve conditions for workers in developing countries, particularly those in which no democratic system which might give the workers a forum in which to voice their grievances exists. However, boycotting the products they manufacture will simply impoverish them, and truly "condemn" them to living in poor conditions on "a pittance".


Anonymous said...

FOARP. Putting aside the thrust of your editorial, the larger point is that young rural dwellers will continue flock to the city, and take the best job on offer, is that they are seeking excitement, personal challenges as well as wanting to escape from dirt poor rural idiocy and boredom.

Boredon is the major trigger. Bright lights, big city (Slim Harpo).

To pinch from Hegel, they no longer wish to 'vegetate in the teeth of time'. Its a generational thing and I don't blame them. And it is young women who are leading this migration rather than males.


Gilman Grundy said...

@KT - Yup, most of the people I knew at Foxconn were happy enough to be there in general for pretty much the reasons you set out. The biggest gripes were with the management, and many were a little cheesed off with living in Longhua, which is a rather dull suburb.

Anonymous said...

Longhua is not just dull, it is a sewer compared to inner Shenzhen, and lets not forget that twisting congested ride from Longhua to Shennan ave. I worked at Longhua hospital and used to enjoy my break having a tea and fag in the cadres well appointed boardroom. The deputy director, a really great doctor, enjoyed giving me the dirt on corruption in the HR and purchasing department and also stats on industrial accidents locally, mainly chemical dermo stuff and hand injuries. Also a massive incidence of serious stomack ulcers for reasons I could never ascertain. It was educational. KT

Gilman Grundy said...

@KT - Never used the hospital. The ride through the checkpoint (the name escapes me) was always bloody insane. Quite why the checkpoints are still in place is beyond me - in almost two years of passing through them I only had my documents checked maybe two-three times. One time I showed them my old Taiwan ID card, having quite sensibly decided that the risk of losing my passport was greater than the risk of being caught without it.

Anonymous said...

Footnote. I lived close to Coco Park but on the other side of Shennan ave, and then moved to Fumin Liu. Yes, I really miss Shenzhen. Subway system most western cities would die for, excellent English library, Hui and Sichuan resturaunts, etc.