China: Another suicide at Foxconn

Nationalise Foxconn under workers’ control and management – end the scourge of ‘blood factories’

”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.”

This was the comment of Apple boss Steve Jobs, defending the conditions at Foxconn’s China factories, where 18 young workers have attempted suicide in the last 12 months, 15 of them successfully. On 7 January 2011, the latest victim jumped to her death from the 10th-floor Shenzhen apartment of her brother. Wang Ling, 25 years old, had reportedly received a “harsh reprimand” from a supervisor and was told to resign after serving the company for five years – a long time at Foxconn.

The Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn is the single largest exporter from China. It manufactures high-end equipment for Apple, Dell, HP, Nintendo, Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and a clutch of other global brands. Owned by Taiwan’s richest man, Terry Tai-Ming Gou, who commands a personal fortune of $5.9 billion according to Forbes magazine, Foxconn’s militarised sweatshops are the secret behind the super-profits of companies like Steve Jobs’ Apple, which is now the most valuable tech company in the world (currently valued at US$65 billion) and the second most valuable US company after Exxon Mobile.

Apple’s dream = workers’ nightmare

As a book about Terry Guo points out, “Steve Jobs’ achievements wouldn’t be possible without Terry.” Foxconn’s Longhua factory in Shenzhen makes 137,000 iPhones each day – about 90 a minute. Most of the profits made from Foxconn products are taken by the branded companies based in the US, Japan and Europe. For example, for every iPad it assembles, which retails abroad at US$499, Foxconn receives only US$11.2. How much do its assembly line workers receive? Well, once costs for fuel, raw materials, transportation and other running costs are deducted, its clear Foxconn’s employees only receive a tiny fraction of the inflated final price tag.

Foxconn’s business model is based on mass production at thin margins, realised by driving its young workforce (the company hardly ever employs people over 30) to the maximum. “I am not interested in knowing how much [money] I have,” said Guo last year. “I don’t care. I am working not for money at this moment, I am working for society, I am working for my employees.”

Yeah, right!

Militarisation and repression

While Foxconn has largely achieved anonymity as the world’s largest maker of electronic gadgetry, its shocking suicide rate has catapulted the company to global notoriety. It’s mastodon factories – Foxconn employs a million workers in China – which resemble medium-sized cities, are run like a military dictatorship. The brutal, dehumanising reality of Foxconn life has also become symbolic of the complicity between the Chinese one-party dictatorship and the biggest global corporations, to squeeze profits out of the blood and sweat of unorganised Chinese workers.

All the suicide victims at Foxconn’s two Shenzhen factories have been migrant workers in the 17-25 age group. One obvious factor is overwork – employees are forced to work double or triple the legal limit on overtime on a regular basis, according to independent surveys. While the maximum legal amount of overtime is 36 hours per month in China, researchers report that 80 to 100 hours of overtime is normal at Foxconn. Other violations of China’s labour laws are legion, according to interviews with employees and ex-employees.

Another factor is systematic repression. The company prefers to employ ex-army officers from Taiwan as line supervisors. Militarisation of the production process is a feature of the ‘Foxconn model’. Nearly 28 percent of workers have been verbally insulted by supervisors or security personnel, and 16 percent have suffered physical abuse, according to a 83-page dossier on Foxconn produced jointly by 20 Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese universities last October.

“Workers aren’t allowed to talk, smile, sit down, walk around or move unnecessarily during their long working hours, which require them to finish 20,000 products every day,” the report states. More than one in eight of employees interviewed for the report said they had passed out on the assembly line due to the high pressure and long working hours. One in four women workers said they suffered menstrual disorders due to overwork.

What’s changed?

The only labour representation permitted at Foxconn’s plants is its own pseudo trade union, as is the case throughout China. In response to the suicides, the company made a show of boosting its “soft power” including the recruitment of several hundred psychiatric counsellors. But most of these are former employees with little or no psychiatric training. Employees complain things are worse than before as this ‘mental health service’ are used to spy upon workers who behave “suspiciously” – including of course those with genuine grievances against the company and its management. Likewise, Foxconn boasts its social amenities, film theatres and badminton courts, which so impressed Steve Jobs. But how many workers have any strength left to enjoy such facilities after 12 hours on the assembly line?

Foxconn factories are run like a police state. If you call to the police emergency line, for example, the chances are you’ll actually be connected to Foxconn’s own security guards. The company is notorious with journalists as it heavily restricts their access, subjecting them to even greater controls than the one-party state outside Foxconn’s gates! Such is the pressure of work that even undercover journalists who have taken jobs at Foxconn in order to expose its conditions, have themselves developed psychological problems and been pulled out by their agencies.

Last summer, under massive public pressure, Foxconn promised to increase wages by around 30 percent. This was also a result of China’s ruling party offering the company a “carrot-and-stick” deal to relocate into lower-wage provinces such as Henan and Hubei, while introducing reforms on wages and conditions at its Shenzhen plants, to shed its “blood factory” image. The workforce in Shenzhen is being downsized from 800,000 to 300,000 or less as the company moves inland. But, as chinaworker.info has reported, while some sections of the Shenzhen workforce are now on higher earnings, working conditions have not improved and, furthermore, hundreds of thousands of student “interns” are now being forced by their schools to work at Foxconn at its new assembly plants in inland provinces.

Workers stand at the gate of a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua

Democratic trade unions and workers’ control

“It is truly a scandal that a company like Foxconn is allowed to continue such exploitative practises. But it is a profit machine for the big global tech companies and a key source of employment and investment for the Chinese regime,” says Chen Lizhi of chinaworker.info. “What’s needed, as a minimum, are democratic and independent trade unions that can fight for workers’ rights, and exercise control over working hours, speed of assembly lines, as well as represent workers’ in fighting for a decent living wage.”

Socialists and the chinaworker.info website call for the nationalisation of Foxconn under the democratic control and management of working people. Such a step, which would make it possible to end today’s inhuman production methods, would of necessity require supportive action by workers in the global tech industry with which Foxconn is so integrated. A few industry giants such as Apple, Nokia, etc., that dominate the market for consumer electronics, have built their business models on outsourcing and the super-exploitation in low-wage economies such as China. As campaign groups have pointed out in connection to Foxconn’s suicides, “there is blood on those iPhones”. Only action by the international working class to reorganise these companies under public ownership, with democratic management and planning by the majority, rather than maximising “shareholder value” for a financial elite, can eradicate the inhumanity of Foxconn’s ‘blood factories’.

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