Shenzhen’s Foxconn factory, made famous last year by a trend of worker suicides that created a global moment of uncomfortable horror, is probably the most well-known factory in the world. Employing hundreds of thousands of young Chinese migrants and manufacturing a huge chunk of the world’s electronics—including the hand-crafting of Apple products—the controversy surrounding the Foxconn factory have been painted as a perfect storm of corporate corruption, the absence of protective labor laws and worker’s rights in China, and the imbalanced hypocrisy of a world with an exponential demand for electronics.
Indeed, even amid the celebratory tributes following Steve Jobs’s death last year, some gristlier postmortem appeared, examining sharply the conditions of Apple’s complicity in the miserable culture of anonymous labor at Foxconn. But while the 2010 suicides brought some attention to the plight of Foxconn workers, a recent resurgence of familiar issues has made it perfectly that even some international criticism has yielded little reform. Put plainly by a recent Atlantic article, “Foxconn is still a hard place to work.”
Earlier this month, a group of workers at the Foxconn plant in Wuhan ascended the factory roof in a mass “suicide protest.” Around 300 Foxconn workers, bereft of any union or protective labor laws, took to the roof threatening a mass suicide if their work conditions did not improve. According to an article by The Telegraph‘s Malcolm Moore:
“We were put to work without any training, and paid piecemeal,” said one of the protesting workers, who asked not to be named. “The assembly line ran very fast and after just one morning we all had blisters and the skin on our hand was black. The factory was also really choked with dust and no one could bear it,” he said.
Several reports from inside Foxconn factories have suggested that while the company is more advanced than many of its competitors, it is run in a “military” fashion that many workers cannot cope with. At Foxconn’s flagship plant in Longhua, five per cent of its workers, or 24,000 people, quit every month.
“Because we could not cope, we went on strike,” said the worker. “It was not about the money but because we felt we had no options. At first, the managers said anyone who wanted to quit could have one month’s pay as compensation, but then they withdrew that offer. So we went to the roof and threatened a mass suicide”.
The culture surrounding Foxconn and the divisive question of Apple and other American corporations’ involvement therein was also recently explored in an episode of WBEZ radio’s This American Life. The episode, entitled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” follows the Apple enthusiast and reporter Mike Daisey and his seemingly-simple quest to find out who made his iPhone and iPad and what their lives are like—information that Apple would apparently like to keep quiet. Kicking off the episode, host Ira Glass conducts a telling interview with an unexpected guest: Siri, the robotic voice of the iPhone 4S. “Siri, where were you manufactured?” asks Glass. “I’m not allowed to say,” is Siri’s eerie reply.
Shu Haolun‘s 2001 documentary Struggle examines a rare attempt made to bolster workers’ rights and address some of the egregious neglect visited upon injured workers at factories like Foxconn. Following the story of lawyer Zhou Litai and his clients, factory workers injured on the job and subsequently dismissed without compensation, Struggle highlights just how perversely the odds are stacked against factory workers. Deprived of any organizational power, factory workers are treated as disposable assets—even those who get injured at work, even those like the Foxconn workers whose distress has led to unthinkable acts of desperation.
While the labor abuses made in the name of filling a staggering demand for electronics has often been painted with an undercurrent of First World/Developing World tension, the exploding–or possibly even explosive–market for Apple products in China is simply adding another layer to the already convoluted miasma of problems. For Foxconn, Apple, a world greedy for more electronics, and a sea of workers with severely limited options, the struggle continues.