Is There Blood on Your iPhone?

by Paul Garver

Please support the LabourStart campaign listed in the right hand column of this blog.  It demands that Foxconn, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic products, including most of Apple’s iPhones and iPads, reform working conditions that have led to the suicides of a dozen young workers between 18 and 24 years of age at its giant factory in Shenzhen.

This tragic wave of suicides has dramatically brought attention to the disastrous human consequences of China’s export-led manufacturing boom. Some 300,000 young (internal) migrant workers work long hours on huge assembly lines and are crammed into high-rise dormitories at Foxconn’s enormous factory complex near Shenzhen. Working excessive overtime to boost their meager wages, forbidden to converse with fellow workers on the assembly line, and lacking any effective union representation, the workers have no collective channels to address their problems. SACOM (Students & Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior) has released an excellent in-depth report on conditions at Foxconn. SACOM also staged a dramatic protest at Foxconn’s headquarters in Hong Kong, while families of suicide victims grieved in Shenzhen and pro- labor groups demonstrated at the headquarters of Foxconn’s parent company in Taiwan.

Foxconn first reacted by denying that the suicides were the company’s problem at all, claiming that statistically its suicide rate was not higher than that of China as a whole. Then company supporters speculated that the workers were killing themselves so that their families could take advantage of the relatively generous compensation payments the company paid out. But as the number of victims mounted almost daily, the company vainly brought in monks, psychiatrists, and gym instructors to stem the tide. As a last resort, Foxconn has just announced that it will raise basic wages by 20% (claiming it had already planned the increase, perhaps to anticipate an expected increase in Shenzhen’s municipal minimum wage).

The official People’s Daily noted that while every employee badge lists a “trade union chairman hotline,” the “trade union” at Foxconn has remained silent in the face of poor pay, harsh management and lack of social relations at the factory. This should not surprise us since the unelected union chairman is a personal secretary to Foxconn’s Taiwanese CEO. The ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) is urging its branches to improve psychiatric counseling for young workers, while “safeguarding the rights and interests of workers” and “developing harmonious labor relations” in order to “maintain stability in work and society.” This repetition of shopworn clichés suggests that the workers have little reason indeed to expect strong advocacy from a trade union organization that has demonstrated some ability to lobby government, but no capacity to intervene at the workplace level.

Wang Yang, secretary of the provincial committee of the Communist Party, similarly called for more recreational and sports activities for young workers as an example of how the party, governmental authorities and Foxconn could effectively work together to prevent such tragedies. “Labor unions in private firms should be improved to facilitate better working conditions and more harmonious relations between workers and employers.”

In an ironic twist, while Party and Union called for more social work, a group of Chinese academic sociologists issued an unprecedented open letter demanding more fundamental structural change. China’s development model has sacrificed the fundamental dignity of China’s rootless migrant workers by exploiting their cheap labor to develop an export-oriented economy. Now the capacity exists to transform this unsustainable development model into a “people-oriented” model that would allow migrant workers to become “true citizens” of the enterprise and of the community. The sociologists point out that of Shenzhen’s 12 million population, only 2.28 million are registered as permanent residents- the rest are regarded as transients without full civil rights. Shenzhen, China’s first exporting processing zone, has developed from a rural village into an enormous and prosperous city, but the vast majority of migrant workers whose labor built that city, cannot take root in it because of their limited rights to housing, medical care and education for their children.

The sociologists conclude with a direct appeal to the new generation of migrant workers themselves “to value their own lives, to value one another’s lives, to use positive methods to respond to the difficult position of laborers today, to strive for basic labour rights and interests, to protect themselves and their families’ rights to a decent life. Like brothers and sisters, unite and help each other, increase your ability to help yourselves when in danger, increase your self-preservation and self-management capability.” Or specifically, as SACOM is demanding, “the trade union at Foxconn should be reorganized through democratic elections of leaders, in accordance with the Trade Union Law of China, so that it can defend the rights of workers through collective bargaining.”

SACOM, along with supporting labor organizations based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is calling for a Global Day of Remembrance for Victims of Foxconn for June 8th, to coincide with Apple’s global launch of its fourth-generation iPhone. They are also appealing for a one-month June boycott of Foxconn’s products (Foxconn supplies major electronic products not only for Apple, but for Nokia, HP, Dell, Sony, Erikson, Motorola and others). Sign their petition: June 8th: Global Day of Remembrance for Victims of Foxconn

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2 Responses

  1. thanks to your post

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