This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2012 - While walking around the campus of Washington University during my studies there, it was apparent that almost everybody, especially students, was using modern electronic devices. The most popular were by Apple, which is a huge industrial and marketing success. When people in the U.S. buy an Apple product online, it is shipped to the U.S. from Shenzhen, China, where its contract manufacturer Foxconn is located. The sad story of Foxconn suicides happened there.
Foxconn has famous customers such as Apple, HP and Sony, and it makes renowned products including notebooks, tablets and smartphones. It established a plant in Shenzhen in the 1980s, and by 2010 had hired around 430,000 workers. Most of them are young, farmer-turned-migrant-workers. In 2010, 14 employees committed suicide between January and November. They jumped off high buildings to their deaths. Their average age was 21.
Why did these young workers do this? Because they worked under terrible pressure for overly long hours and meager wages, and with no form of relief from mental stress. They worked like modern slaves and did not have real hope for their future.
Foxconn administers the factory in Shenzhen in a military style. Every worker in the factory lives life strictly by the clock. They get up, go to work, eat and go to sleep at the same time every day, repeating the same monotonous routine. They must remain standing at work for eight to 14 hours at a stretch to do the highly repetitive assembly tasks on the production line, and they are not allowed to talk to each other during work time.
These young workers do not really have the option of working fewer hours, given their meager wages. Their monthly salary starts at 900 Chinese Yuan (US $130), and they feel the need to put in toilsome extra hours to supplement their monthly wages. They rarely enjoy leisure activities, spending almost all their time within the cramped, walled manufacturing plant.
Although this site has been given the nickname Foxconn City, the “community” by no means provides enough facilities for all 430,000 workers to enjoy their limited, not truly leisure time.
In short, psychological pressures mount in the daily life of these workers, pressures that cannot be ignored if we want to understand their tragedies. Most of the workers at Foxconn come from remote areas of the country and go to big cities to earn a living.
They arrive at Shenzhen with no money, no place to stay, and no people to turn to. All they have is the workplace. They rarely have friends and have little communication with their workmates or roommates. So it should come as no surprise that many Foxconn workers feel hopeless and pessimistic about their future.
It’s noteworthy that workers such as those at Foxconn receive little protection under China’s labor laws. These laws fail to tackle the problem of low pay, for instance. The Chinese government introduced a minimum wage in 2004, which is far below what is required for even a minimal lifestyle. Many employers used this minimum as the basic figure for their production line workers.
For instance, the minimum monthly wage in Shenzhen before July 2010 was 900 yuan, which was precisely what Foxconn was paying as a basic figure before the suicides. Labor laws do set restrictions on overtime work, but employers routinely manage to evade this by letting workers sign “voluntary” overtime working agreement when they begin employment, thereby making the factory not responsible for long work hours.
In general the workers are in a weak position when bargaining with a company like Foxconn. The supply of migrant labor in China has been abundant. In the years leading up to 2010, around 145 million migrant workers, over one-tenth of China’s total population, had left their hometown to work in eastern and southern cities, meaning Foxconn always has a long queue of applicants at its doors.
Foxconn is experimenting with other ways to avoid higher labor costs. It has decided to move its plant to central or western regions of China, where the local minimum wages and living expenses are lower. Local governments in central and western regions are willing to give preferential terms to Foxconn-style investors on land-use, taxation, and so on because it boosts local economic development.
Workers in China get little help from labor unions in all this. In the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, like most factories in China, there is no effective labor union representing workers. The labor union that does exist is organized by the government or the employer and has the task of defusing conflicts with workers.
In cases like Foxconn, the government is going to have to step up to take part in resolving problems by balancing the bargaining power of laborers and employers. It should ensure both sides have the right to negotiate for their own interests. And a final part of the solution will involve lower government taxes, leaving more money for enterprises and labor to resolve their differences peacefully.
Jing Tian was in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University, where she received an LLM from the Law School. She received her Faculty of Law-LLM degree in 2009 from The University of Hong Kong and is currently a PhD-Faculty of Law candidate at The University of Hong Kong.