Last year, 18 employees attempted suicide at Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturing giant that makes component parts for iPods and other electronics. Fourteen succeeded. The suicides drew some media attention, and the company’s grim, Kafkaesque response was to force employees to sign a pledge stating they wouldn’t commit suicide, and to install preventative netting around the facility. Foxconn also raised wages for the mainland Chinese ethnic minority that had previously received particularly poor treatment.
But these measures don’t appear to have been quite enough — already, in the first month of 2011, another 25 year-old worker has leaped to her death. She reportedly had been chastised by factory officials, and told she was going to lose her job.
So despite the wage increase — the only reform that matters of the three — things continue to spiral out of control at Foxconn. There’s been violence at some of the plants, with stabbings and fights erupting amongst the workers. Labor riots are beginning to break out. And no wonder: Foxconn has long been criticized by human rights advocates for its low pay, strict, demanding atmosphere, and generally harsh conditions.
Workers build 137,000 iPhones a day in the massive Shenzen plant where most of the suicides have taken place — that’s about 90 a minute. It’s not hard to see why the stress of keeping up that rapid pace of production takes its toll on the employees. And it’s also one way that most folks misunderstand the concept of “harsh working conditions”. For instance, check out Steve Jobs’ defense of the Shenzen factory, after Apple’s involvement with Foxconn was criticized:
”It is not a sweatshop. You go in this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools. For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”
But it is a sweatshop, even if it doesn’t look like one. Just because there’s a swimming pool outside certainly doesn’t mean the laborer who’s making $5 a day working 11 hour days is leisurely floating around in it. If anything, those sort of aesthetic pleasantries can be used to pacify Western labor-rights concerns, while actually accomplishing little else. What makes all this even scarier is the fact that Foxconn is slated to hire 140,000 more people this year.
Which brings us to the core of the problem: People need those jobs. Poverty is still rampant in China, and the only reason that Foxconn — and the numerous other corporations with such poor working conditions — can get away with such treatment is that people are desperate. But seeing as how this is really a core problem with capitalism itself, there’s no easy solution. If Foxconn raises its wages too high, then the plant becomes less competitive, and the major corporations that purchase its parts — Apple, Sony, Nokia, etc — will find cheaper alternatives to do business with. It’s why, after all, they outsources manufacturing to China in the first place. It’s a vicious pickle, and as is most often the case, it’s the majority — the low-earning employees — who are caught in the middle.
Photo Credits: Pink Cartridge Blog, infzm.com