Thursday 22 March 2012

Foxconn: Cut the BS

Let me tell you about a company I'm familiar with:

- In this company it's typical for an employee to have to work 12-15 hours a day, 6 or 7 days in a row without being paid overtime.

- In this company managers have been known to physically abuse employees with slaps about the face as a form of punishment. This is in addition to regular dressings-down of staff in front of their peers using insulting language.

- In this company employees must attend daily 'meetings' which actually take the form of being harangued by management with meaningless slogans.

- In this company even smiling in the work-place is discouraged as it may lead others to think you are 'unserious' about your work.

- In this company employees are regularly fired for little or no warning on a whim. One moment they're at their workplace, the next their out on their ears with no compensation due to the laxity of local laws.

- This company's customers include several household-name brands.

Foxconn, right? Wrong - actually it's a law firm outside of China (and no, I'm not saying which one). Despite the impression that some people now seem to have, working for Foxconn is not nearly so bad as working in a firm like the one described above.

The matter of Mike Daisey, a US journalist who essentially fabricated most of the details in a report he made about the Foxconn plant, has been dealt with well enough elsewhere - and I personally never listened to the report in the first place and therefore have little to add to the debate except to say that he should have been caught out earlier.

What I have seen is people commenting about the terrible conditions at Foxconn as though it were some modern-day GULAG. At least according to my experience of working at their plant in Longhua, Shenzhen from early 2006 to late 2007, this is groundless. In fact, whilst I there's certainly elements of the corporate culture there I would criticise (particularly the militaristic nature of the induction training) the basic working conditions I saw at Foxconn were not much worse than those on the average factory estate I worked on during my student days in the UK.

This is not to say that there is nothing to criticise about Foxconn. The incident in which they tried to silence a report by two journalists working for China Business News by having their assets frozen and suing them for more than 3 million US dollars in damages, only to then drop the case, was shameful. Particularly telling was Foxconn's omiting to sue the UK's Daily Mail, which came out with a similar report at the same time. The case of the employee who reportedly committed suicide after loosing a valuable prototype was, to say the least, suspicious. The explosion at their Chengdu facility, apparently due to powdered aluminium being loose in the air, is of course a cause of concern even if overall safety standards are good by local standards.

It's just that when I see people (usually internet commentators) complaining about workers voluntarily working a 10 or 12-hour days, I have to wonder whether they have ever stepped foot inside the average factory in their own country - or even the average law firm. If they had, they would have seen plenty of people in conditions almost as 'terrible'.

Calls for a boycott are particularly vacuous, as I said back in '09:

"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."

Again - this isn't to say "don't criticise Foxconn", but just that when doing so, don't do so on grounds which are essentially BS.

[Picture: A visualisation of safety conditions and renumeration of workers at Foxconn's Longhua facility, adapted from this twitpic]


RollingWave said...

I'm going to take a guess that said lawfirm is japanese, the meaningless slogan part kinda gave it away :P

Gilman Grundy said...

@RW - Like I said, I'm not saying one way or the other ;)

Tao said...

Nice post, but quick correction: Daisey has always been a theater monologist, not journalist.