Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Your iPad did not kill anyone.

A friend of mine shared this article, about the conditions at Foxconn's 400,000 worker factory in Longhua where I used to work, via Facebook. I couldn't read past the title "The woman who nearly died making your iPad" without getting a sick feeling in my stomach - not because of the conditions it described at the firm, which I have been far from un-critical of, but because of the, frankly, irresponsible nature of the piece. The article takes a serious issue - high levels of suicide in China - and simultaneously trivialises it whilst placing the blame at the wrong door. Take the opening section:
"At around 8am on 17 March 2010, Tian Yu threw herself from the fourth floor of her factory dormitory in Shenzhen, southern China. For the past month, the teenager had worked on an assembly line churning out parts for Apple iPhones and iPads. At Foxconn's Longhua facility, that is what the 400,000 employees do: produce the smartphones and tablets that are sold by Samsung or Sony or Dell and end up in British and American homes. But most famously of all, China's biggest factory makes gadgets for Apple. Without its No 1 supplier, the Cupertino giant's current riches would be unimaginable: in 2010, Longhua employees made 137,000 iPhones a day, or around 90 a minute. That same year, 18 workers – none older than 25 – attempted suicide at Foxconn facilities. Fourteen died. Tian Yu was one of the lucky ones: emerging from a 12-day coma, she was left with fractures to her spine and hips and paralysed from the waist down. She was 17."
The article describes a tragedy, and attempts to connect it to special conditions at the factory. It fails to explain, however, how this is tragedy is specifically connected to Foxconn rather than simply work conditions everywhere in China (and in many firms outside China, even some in the west). One might just as easily take an example of a suicide at any workplace and seek to blame it on the employers.

It tries to dismiss the fact that the rate it describes (18 people at a factory housing ~400,000 worker) is roughly 1/5th of the national average (22.23 per 100,000) by saying that this "[Overlooks] how those who take their own lives are often elderly or women in villages, rather than youngsters who have just moved to cities to seek their fortunes" when this is in fact appears to go against what the source it links to says (i.e., "The disease control centre said suicide is the biggest killer among Chinese aged 15 to 34.").

In fact, even a casual inspection of the available sources shows that pay and conditions at Foxconn's Longhua plant are much better than those of the typical Shenzhen firm. The fact that the suicide rate at Foxconn's Longhua plant are so much lower than the national average reinforces this.

This is no surprise to anyone who has simply walked out of the Longhua factory gates and looked at the conditions at workplaces in the same neighbourhood. I remember seeing one family processing e-waste in their front room which opened onto the street. A young child played by a wok filled with molten solder.

But do newspapers cover the story of how the cheap products that fill our super-market shelves are made in dangerous conditions, and what happens to them after we're done with them? No, they focus on a factory which is much better than the vast majority simply because a big-name product is made there.

The situation described as leading to Tian Yu's decision to kill herself (over-work, adminstration problems leading to late/non-payment of salary) happen in many, many firms in China (and elsewhere, for that matter). Laying the blame for the generally poor working conditions that the average Chinese worker faces at the feet of either Apple or Foxconn is quite simply absurd given that they are far better than the average.

If blame should be placed anywhere, perhaps the people with the most power to decide the minimal level of conditions that employers have to offer their employees - the Chinese government - are the most deserving of blame for their failure to do anything, and their repression of independent trade unions that might negotiate better conditions. It is far easier, however, to simply castigate the greed of large companies who, in final analysis, only do what they are required to do by law.


M with the K to the L said...

Someone very close to me happens to work in this company, and she confirmed everything you said. Media constantly uses Foxconn and Apple to make up stories, they are an easy target.

Ji Xiang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ji Xiang said...

Well, I am sure that workers in small Chinese companies work in even worse conditions than those in the Foxcom factory.

It is also logical that the companies will exploit the workers as much as they can legally get away with. They are about making money after all.

At the same time, I feel that people can still campaign against the bad working conditions which workers have to face in Foxcon factories in China, and thus push the company to improve them, or the government to force them to do so. The fact that local companies are even worse doesn't change anything.

Salaries should be paid on time everywhere, and working hours should be humane. If a multinational giant can't even pay its workers on time, that is rather ridicolous. Do we really expect Foxcon to be no better than little Chinese family-run businesses?