The Foxconn Suicides

Foxconn, a Taiwanese Company also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Company, is an electronics manufacturer with factories based internationally, including China. Producing electronics for such major brand names as HP, Dell, and Apple, to name just a few, Foxconn “is currently the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer” (Chan & Ngai 2010). Between May and June of 2010 thirteen workers at Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China attempted or committed suicide, sparking worldwide attention and controversy. In the following essay I want to avoid the factory centered sweatshop mentality and understand this event in terms of the forces acting on the factory subjects within and without the factory. I also want to analyze how this event has been portrayed in the media, and in what ways these portrayals depart from our understanding of the the Foxconn deaths.

Why Jump?

The first worker to commit suicide, Ma Xiangqian, had only been working at Foxconn for a few months before committing suicide. In looking at Barboza’s description of Ma’s life at the factory, he is seen as having a hard time adjusting to factory life, with a manager who supposedly cursed at him, and an eventual demotion to scrubbing toilets. There are two interpretations as to why this man jumped; many say that he was simply one of many new workers who couldn’t “adjust to factory life,” (Barboza, 2010), and another interpretation offered by a classmate of mine is that he could have been saving face.

I think we can look at this as a combination of both.  With such an early demotion to scrubbing toilets it could be said that he was not adjusting well to factory life. Yet, as Barboza’s article would suggest, many people had a hard time adjusting, but that did not always lead to suicide, so why would it in this case? If we look at Suzanne Fox’s article “China’s Changing Culture and Etiquette,” we can better understand “face” as something that should be taken seriously. “Face” is  linked not only to an individual, but also to the reputation of their entire family. While the new generation of Chinese is notorious for pulling away from such traditions, “face” is still an important value for many, if not most. In terms of face, Ma’s demotion would have been incredibly shameful, not only to him but also to his family. (Fox 2008) It can then be understood that in order to preserve his family’s honor, in order to “save face,” he committed suicide.

So it would seem that the first suicide was sparked by a worker’s failure to adjust to factory life. Yet, what is this “factory life” that is apparently so hard to adjust to? We can understand entering into any new place, or “life” as requiring the individual to learn the rules and codes of that space, especially for someone coming from a rural background into an urban environment. In entering such a radically different and constructed environment, the individual’s way of understanding the world, their way of working within it must be rewritten, especially in the environment of a factory where each person must be fit into the factory machine, working with expensive electronic equipment to complete a specific task as part of the greater assembly apparatus. This process of becoming a factory worker can be understood as a process of “discipline,” as Foucault explores in his book, “Discipline and Punish.” (Foucault 1995)

To explore discipline and all that it entails is a major task, especially in its application to the Chinese factory, so here I must narrow the scope and focus to four key elements: individuation, time management/manipulation, control over the body, and punishment.

“Discipline proceeds from the distribution of individuals in space” (Foucault 1995, p141). As Ngai describes in her book “Made in China,” the first thing that happens to a new worker entering the factory is their assignment to a place on the production line. This assignment is more than just where the person sits, but it defines their place on the line, isolating them from the collective by giving them a specific position with a specific role within the assembly machine. Yet, as Ngai points out, they are still very much a part of the collective, with the conveyor belt constantly marching forward, tying the production of one person to the rest. Foucault also points out that such an assignment serves to map the individual onto the machine, and thus, in addition to all the other effects, serves to make the individual more available to supervision by their superiors, whose space is also defined as being separate from and above the rest. (Foucault 1995) The assignment of a seat is the definition of one’s role within the factory.

Time is another key element to factory life. If a rural peasant is to become a factory worker then they must learn to function within a precise allocation of time. Within the factory there are two functions of time: the mapping out of the day and the mapping out of the work. In the factory Ngai worked at in Shenzhen, each day had a strict schedule marking out the meals and shifts throughout, from the moment the worker arrived in the morning, until the moment they headed back to the dormitories at night. Once the first shift started and the work set in motion, the assembly workers were then subject to a strict mandate of time in terms of the execution of their work. A diagram at each work station defined not only how to do each job, but also the amount of pieces per minute each person was assigned to complete. These times were constantly calibrated, with analysts from the engineering department coming down regularly with a stopwatch to time each person and then go back to their office to decide how much time would be alloted to each job on the line. (Ngai 2005)

To achieve such calibrated calculations of production speed also required the meticulous control of body of the worker. In order to maximize efficiency, each movement taken in the assembly of a product was worked out by engineers and then taught to the workers. Where to place a hand, how to insert a screw, every action was calibrated and controlled by the factory. In this way, even the body of the worker is subject to the demands of the machine. (Ngai 2005)

The final element of creating a disciplined worker is punishment. Herein lies the consequences of what happens when one doesn’t work within the disciplinary power of the system. Foucault talks about the disciplinary system as incorporating ways of  “making the slightest departures from correct behavior subject to punishment.” (Foucault 1995, p178) We see this in Ngai’s factories as signs are posted almost everywhere, in both the factory and the dormitories, enumerating various offences and their corresponding punishment, usually by way of fines or wage deductions. Spitting, leaving for the bathroom without permission, and arriving late were all subject to such punishment. Even answering a personal call on the shop floor could result in immediate dismissal and the deduction of all wages. (Ngai 2005)

But, even more effective than fines and fees designed to keep a worker operating within the system, is a worker’s fear of being rejected from the system. One reason why young workers find jobs in the city lies in the fact that such a job can bring in more money in a month than farming back home can produce in a year. As such, a majority of most young workers’ wages goes back home to support the family or pay for a sibling’s education. But the motivations for young migrant workers to work in the city are more than that; a job in the city also holds their dreams of independence and modernity, dreams of becoming a modern consumer. As Ngai tells us about the female workers she worked with, “their desire to consume was driven by their urgent desire to reduce the disparity between themselves and the city dwellers, as well as to live up to the calling of the modern model of female beauty that was increasingly imagined and imaged by the mass media and popular magazines.”(Ngai 2005, 158). We see in the subject of the worker a desiring subject who not only wants to help fulfill the economic needs of their family back home, but also desires to further their own interests to consume and become modern. (Ngai 2005) As such, none of that would be possible if they are rejected from the system.

This brings me to the illegally high amounts of overtime accumulated by factory workers at Foxconn. In several articles workers at Foxconn were reported to have worked more than 100 hours over the legal limit. Why? In the factory Ngai worked at she described overtime as being a way for workers to potentially double their pay, with many workers choosing to work at certain factories because of the excessive amounts of overtime offered. (Ngai 2005) In the case of the Foxconn workers, examples cited have shown that in some cases overtime made up 60% of a worker’s salary. (Chan & Ngai 2010) Another important thing to note is that in the case of Ngai’s factory the basic wage without overtime amounted to just enough for food and living expenses in Shenzhen. (Ngai 2005) If one wanted to send money home or save money for themselves, then they would have to partake in overtime work. Taking all of this into consideration, and also noting the above argument that the factory worker is a subject who possesses desires beyond basic living expenses, we begin to see overtime as necessary for an individual to see any gains come from their work. So when Apple claims that they found no instances of forced overtime (Johnson 2011), they are most probably right.

So we now have a better understanding of the factory system, a system which rejected the first suicide victim Ma Xiangqian. But what of the other victims? Why did they jump? One suggestion is that they were copycat suicides, people who jumped for the money that the company would give to their families. Considering that the first victim’s family did not receive any compensation from the company, I doubt that could have been the reason for all of the suicides, but let’s explore for a moment why this may have been a possibility for even one jumper.

Before we go into that, I think it is important to first look at the transient presence of rural workers in the factories. According to Ngai, the average factory worker stayed and worked in the factories for only four to five years. (Ngai 2005) In order to understand this, we must first understand the Chinese hukou system.

The hukou system is a set of residential regulations managing where someone can and cannot live. Each citizen is assigned a hukou from birth, inheriting it from their mother, and this hukou marks a person as being a resident of a certain city or village. As such, each citizen can only live in the place of their hukou unless they obtain from a job a temporary hukou which gives them the right to live and work in the other city, but that’s it. (Chan 2010) This means that if a rural worker loses their job in the factory they no longer have the right to live in the city and are forced to either find a new job or return home.

But there’s more to the hukou system. A rural worker who gains a temporary hukou does not gain access to that city’s state resources, such as welfare and public education, meaning that even if a rural parent has worked in the city for years, their child will not be allowed to attend the urban schools. This helps to reinforce a divide that exists between rural and urban citizens in China. While urban citizens have access to free, quality education for their children, education in rural locales is poor where available. (Chan 2010) As such, rural citizens coming to work in the factories are often under-educated, having never gone to school at worst, or having completed secondary school at best. (Ngai 2005)

With such a poor education, rural workers have little to no chance of promotion beyond the production floor. This means that they are only able to work in the factory as long as they are able to keep up with the pace of production. But, as Ngai points out, factory work is incredibly demanding, with most workers expecting “their health to deteriorate after working for more than three years in the factory” (Ngai 2005, 169). This begs the question, what happens to workers who are no longer physically capable of working on the production floor? The simple answer: they have no choice but to go home.

We’ll come back to this, but for now I want to return to the idea that some of the Foxconn victims may have jumped for money. According to Ngai and Chan,who did extensive research on the Foxconn suicides, “the Shenzhen Municipal Trade Union and Shenzhen University, based on the joint survey of 5,000 young migrant workers in Shenzhen city during April and June 2010, found that the respondents’ average monthly wage was only 1,838.6 yuan (US$267).” (Chan & Ngai 2010) If we assume that the average Foxconn production floor worker had a career span that corresponded to the workers of Ngai’s factory, 5 years, and if we take into account the fact that the Foxconn workers saw little if any pay raises in the years leading up to this event, then we can calculate the wages accrued from a factory career to amount to approximately 110,316 yuan. Now, according to Bruce Blanch, a BBC correspondent, the amount offered to a worker’s family should the worker die on site was 100,000 yuan. This means that the amount of money paid should a worker die amounted to nearly as much money as they would have made during their entire career with the factory. Assuming that one of the primary functions of going to the factory was to send money home to support the family, then the work of an entire factory career could be accomplished with one simple jump.

A third explanation for why people jumped, was that workers were seeing a discrepancy between what they expected and what they found to be the reality. (Ngai & Chan 2010) After the eleventh victim jumped a note was found. Police who found the note said “that Li had lost confidence in his future, and that his expectations of what he could do at work and for his family far outweighed what could be achieved” (Xinhua May 25th 2010). This brings me back to my earlier question, what kind of future is there for these workers?

The latest generation of migrant (rural) workers is experiencing what Ngai and Huilin call “Rupture”: “there is no hope of either transforming oneself into an urban worker or of returning to the rural community to take up life as a peasant.” (Ngai & Huilin 2010 p503) The hukou system prevents them from obtaining permanent residence in the city, but without sufficient experience to run a farm, or sufficient money to start a business, going home isn’t an option either. These workers then find themselves enclosed in a space that belongs neither here nor there, in what Huilin and Ngai call, “unfinished proletarianization” (Huilin & Ngai 2010). Furthermore, this newest generation has been raised in the reform era with better education and better material wealth than their predecessors, and as such they want more from life, and are thus angry, frustrated, and resentful of a world that prevents them from achieving it. (Huilin & Ngai 2010)

All of these factors collide upon the subject of the migrant worker, sparking increased unrest and protest, and, as it would seem, perhaps even suicide.

Foxconn Suicides in the Media.

As one would expect, the media response to the Foxconn suicides in both China and America differed, but in what ways? In the section to follow I’m going to examine how the popular discourse differed for each country, and how the major media presented these events.

http://micgadget.com/3997/how-chinese-media-use-comics-to-criticize-foxconn-tragedy/

For our purposes, I think it would be helpful to interpret the comics that emerged in the wake of the Foxconn suicides as being to some extent representative of the popular discourse taking place in each country.

If we look at the comics that emerged from China, we see critiques of both Foxconn and the government, with one comic showing a man representing the government and a man representing Foxconn  standing at the top of a building where a sign says, “Don’t commit suicide.” The Foxconn man says, “Well, we tried,” while the government official looks down at the victims and says that there must be a problem with Feng Shui.

In other comics we see a judge denying workers’ appeals for compensation, and a figure representing Foxconn asking a monk to help them while the workers keep jumping. (Chang 2010)

http://micgadget.com/3997/how-chinese-media-use-comics-to-criticize-foxconn-tragedy/

http://micgadget.com/3997/how-chinese-media-use-comics-to-criticize-foxconn-tragedy/

In all instances we see that the focal point of critique is the government and Foxconn, showing them as either doing nothing, or not doing enough.

In response to this, we see the Xinhua articles, Xinhua being the news agency of the Chinese Communist Party. (Fan 2006)

In May of 2010, after the 12th jump and 10th death at Foxconn, Xinhua released an article covering the story. In it, the Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou is described as being “Traumatized by the series of tragedies,” going on to say, “he has been having trouble sleeping at night because of the suicides and he dreads the sound of his own phone ringing after work hours because he’s afraid it will be news of another death.” Further descriptions paint Gou as being compassionate and concerned for the workers, determined to do whatever he can to put a stop to the suicides. (Xinhua May 26 2010)

The rest of the article spends a significant amount of time describing exactly what is being done by Foxconn to prevent these suicides, enumerating pay raises, counseling services, and the installation of safety nets on the buildings. Another section is dedicated to describing the government’s response and the efforts they are making to help Foxconn’s new counseling services. (Xinhua May 26th 2010)

Whereas the comics criticized the government and Foxconn as being uncaring and not doing enough, Xinhua was careful to disarm such claims, specifically describing the government and Foxconn as being compassionate and proactive.

On the American side, we see comics and other images that target consumers with messages designed to make them feel guilty about their consumption.

Here we see a comic highlighting a consumer’s joy at her new MacBook Pro, a joy which is all but shattered when her friend tells her about the factory suicides.

And there is also the play on Apple’s iPhone, with the screen announcing an incoming call from one’s conscience while the background displays the factory workers who made the product.

In theses examples, guilt is reflected back upon the consumer as they are called to consider the plight of the workers making their consumption possible. By assigning guilt to the consumer for purchasing and endorsing such products made by “sweatshop” practices, we see an interpretation of events that suggests that, “the power lies with the people.”

Stemming from this, we also see visual plays on Apple’s logo, making clear associations between the trademark “Apple,” and suicide or death. This trend is seen in both China and America as a way to draw consumer attention to the connection between Apple and the worker deaths at the sites where Apple’s products are built.

http://www.iworld.com.my/blog/wp-content/uploads/bloody-apple-protest-in-hk.jpg

Here we have images from a protest in Hong Kong where protesters carried these “Bloody Apple” signs into an Apple store and put the signs next to products, protesting against poor corporate ethics on the part of Foxconn and Apple. (MSN 2010)

We also see other images popping up in America, where the Apple icon is simply associated with death and juxtaposed with articles discussing the Foxconn suicides and bad working conditions in the factories.

As far as the major media in America, we see a desire to objectively inform their readers, with all of them citing numerous facts and experts. Some try to be completely neutral, and others add an element of entertainment to stories telling them in narrative form, either following the life of a victim, or narrating the experiences of a visiting reporter. (Barboza 2010, Johnson 2011)But overall, there are two trends that come up in the reports: they either seek to highlight poor work conditions and paint the factories as “sweatshops,” or play down such claims and highlight the resources available to workers, with most articles leaning toward the latter or doing a bit of both.

To see a video of one such report, this one from the major American news network CNN, the following URL is available . (My apologies, CNN will not allow the video to be embedded on any other website.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0aZWWZnXDA

In this video emphasis is placed on understanding the facts about life at the Foxconn factory: interviewing workers, touring factories, and discussing the measures taken to prevent further suicides. But when discussing the reasons for the suicides in the first place, it points to abusive management as being one possible factor, but cites that the suicides are most likely due to something called “a suicide cluster: when the idea of suicide quickly spreads among a group of people. Often teenagers or young adults.” (CNN 2010)

Indeed, most articles I read look to either the long hours, abusive managers, or mental instability on the part of the individuals as being the potential causes of the suicides, with a few briefly mentioning the difference in worker’s expectations and realities. I disagree, I think that rather than mentioning the disparity between expectation and reality experienced by the workers, the disparity needs to be the focus, because if one looks to the suicide victims they will find that the victims themselves are attributing their suicides to a disillusionment, or a failure to achieve what they had envisioned for their future. What I am arguing in this article is that in order to understand what happened we need to look beyond the media representations and beyond the factory itself to understand the greater context within which the workers are situated. While the workers may live their day to day lives within the compound, their lives and their futures are nonetheless subject to the political, patriarchal, and economic forces outside of it. These workers, born and raised in the reform era, expect more from their lives, and as such they are becoming resentful (Ngai 2005) of a reality that keeps them from attaining a stable future.

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Annotated Bibliography

BARBOZA, DAVID, June 6, 2010, “After Suicides, Scrutiny of China’s Grim Factories” NYTimes, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/business/global/07suicide.html

In this New York Times article David Barboza illustrates the events surrounding the Foxconn suicides, focusing primarily on the first suicide victim, Ma Xiangqian. According to Barboza, working conditions such as long hours, low wages, abusive mangers, and a militaristic life style may have contributed to Ma’s actions. He also cites sociologists, explaining that Ma, like many others, is part of a new generation that is finding its expectations falling short of the reality they find in factory life. He then goes on to cite Economists who say that a decrease in young labor entering the factory industry could negatively impact China’s competitive export market. Continuing the story of Ma, he is then described as going to work in the city, like his sisters and other factory workers, to alleviate his family’s financial burden. Yet working conditions, a lack of friends in the factory, and a demoralizing demotion all are cited as being potentially connected to Ma’s suicide. Barboza ends his article by noting that many of the suicide victims received large monetary compensation from the Foxconn company, which may have led to some copycat suicides.

Foxconn Suicide Cluster, Sina.com, http://english.sina.com/z/100521Foxconn/index.shtml

Xinhua, Sina,  May 26th, 2010 “Another Foxconn employee falls to death despite company, government appeals” http://english.sina.com/china/2010/0526/321604.html

In this article the Xinhua News Agency describes the many steps being taken to prevent further deaths, including the installation of nets on buildings, the hiring of mental health professionals, and the creation of 50 member communities among the workers. In this article Foxconn Chairman Terry Ghou is described as losing sleep over these suicides, doing everything he can to make sure no more lives are lost. The government is also cited as encouraging the workers to cherish their lives and stay strong, while aiding in the implementing of psychiatrists at Foxconn. The cause for the deaths is attributed to weak adjustment to factory life on the part of the workers.

Xinhua, Sina,  May 28th 2010 “Foxconn tragedies highlight need for economic restructuring”, http://english.sina.com/business/2010/0528/321960.html

In this article the Xinhua News Agency explains the current Chinese economic structure as unsustainable and in need of reform. First they illustrate Foxconn’s operations as a manufacturer for large American companies, noting how the American companies take the majority of the profits from such arrangements. They then go on to note that this reflects the situation throughout China, a situation in which businesses are not in a position to build brand names or develop new technology, thus limiting any ability to pay higher salaries. They end the article saying that what is needed is “accelerated economic reform with a focus of innovation.”

Pun, Ngai. 2005. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Durham: Duke University Press and Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

In her book, Pun Ngai describes her experiences as an anthropologist working in a Shenzen factory alongside rural migrant workers. According to Ngai the workers are subject to a “triple oppression,” of industrial, governmental, and patriarchal structures that work on the subject of the dagongmei, or female worker. The government’s hukou system bars workers from permanent residence in the city, while patriarchal family structures pressure young workers to marry before their youth is spent. In the case of the Industry, Ngai cites Michel Foucault to highlight the ways in which the factory structure disciplines the rural worker into becoming a subject of the factory system, a cog in the machine. The workers also face discrimination, being seen as lowly rural residents in an urban world. Chronic pain is also explored as a product of working in the factories, pain which is both physical and mental, disrupting the lives of the workers, and also, as Ngai describes, becoming a form of resistance to the factory system as  it either slows or temporarily stops production. There are also other forms of resistance described, such as the unanimous slowing of the production lines in response to unrealistic demands, or even stopping them in response to something as simple as the radios being turned off. In the end Ngai describes her project as a political project with the hope of creating a minor genre of resistance, speaking to social violence and globalization.

Pun, Ngai and Lu Huilin. 2010. “Unfinished Proletarianization: Self, Anger, and Class Action among the Second Generation of Peasant-workers in Present-day China. Modern China 36(5): 493-519.

In this article Ngai and Huilin describe what they call the “Unfinished Proletarianization of the working class.” According to Ngai and Huilin, the second generation of migrant workers are experiencing a disconnect between expectations and realities, and with an outlook different than their first generation predecessors they are experiencing anger and frustration enough to provoke a greater level of unrest, being more likely to change jobs or instigate collective actions than their predecessors. Growing up in the reform era, they also have a higher education and clearer understanding of their rights and are more likely to seek out ways to articulate their sense of disenfranchisement. There is the sense of being enclosed, neither being able to pursue a future in the city, nor support themselves in their rural hukou residences. Faced with no future in the factory system Xin, the migrant worker who was the focus of this article, went home to make a life for himself in agriculture. But with no experience and his father set against his venture, Xin’s work failed, forcing him to go back to the factories, living and working in a place he was not allowed to call home. This was a trend Ngai and Huilin observed among most migrant workers, unable to go back and make a sustainable life on the farm, yet unable to move forward in the city. Finding themselves in this situation, some migrant workers turn to collective action, seeking out the many avenues available to them to express their discontent, but, as with Xin, they found that these routes often just lead to dead ends. In the end, Ngai and Huilin argue that out of all this the second generation of migrant workers has become aware of their class position, articulating their collective grievances as such.

Chan, Jenny. 2009. “MEANINGFUL PROGRESS OR ILLUSORY REFORM?: Analyzing China’s Labor Contract Law”. New Labor Forum (Murphy Institute). 18 (2).

In this article Jenny Chan addresses the 2007 Labor Contract Law passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in China. Going into effect in 2008, this law was described as being a victory for the workers it sets out to protect. Yet, as Chan discusses in this article, that isn’t necessarily the case. According to Chan, in most cases labor contracts have yet to be offered to employees, and the bureaus and unions in charge of looking out for the workers are not doing their jobs. The reason for such a lack of enforcement is attributed to the interest of local governments to attract foreign investment, seeking to reduce production cost for foreign investors rather than increase wages and protect the rights of workers. In one case the role of the unions is described as being an asset to employers to subdue unrest, as opposed to the intrusive threat to production cost it is perceived to be when it protects workers’ wages and rights. In the end, Chan notes that while the effects of the labor law are limited, what with local governments being pressured by foreign investors, it is nonetheless the weapon of choice for workers acting against the suppression of their legally given rights.

Chan, Kam Wing. 2010. “The Global Financial Crisis and Migrant Workers in China: ‘There Is No Future as a Labourer; Returning to the Village Has No Meaning'”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. v34 (n3): 659-77

In this article Kam Wing Chan addresses the effects of the economic slump on the lives of rural migrant workers in China. He looks not only at the disenfranchisement of the rural immigrants by the government’s hukou system, but he also looks at how the Chinese economy makes full use of this unique distinction between rural and urban. According to Chan, in light of the economic slump millions of these workers lost their jobs, with no real prospects in the rural communities where their hukou marks them as belonging to. While programs were created to encourage workers to farm, the reality was that there was not enough arable land, and thus such programs were impractical to the livelihood of these workers. Instead most of them went back to the city to find work where there ensued a “race to the bottom,” in which workers desperate to find work were exploited by companies who would give them lower wages and fewer working hours. Chan also makes clear that the hukou system not only restricts the workers’ ability to live in the city, but also bars them from such government services as education, welfare, and other benefits given to those holding an urban hukou. He even notes that unemployment statistics often count only those with Urban hukou, ignoring the unemployment numbers found in the rural population, which make up a large percentage of the population in most industrial cities. Chan concludes by saying that while such discriminations between urban and rural have clearly contributed to China’s growth, such a system is not sustainable, either economically, politically, socially, or morally.

Chan, Jenny, and Pun Ngai. http://www.japanfocus.org/-jenny-chan/3408 n.d. http://www.japanfocus.org/-jenny-chan/3408 (accessed 02 2011).

In this article Jenny Chan and Pun Ngai address the event commonly known as “The Foxconn Suicides.” According to Ngai and Chan, Foxconn is a manufacturing company out of Taiwan with factories based internationally, including China. A very successful company, in fact, the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, it manufactures for many large corporations, including Apple, HP, Dell, and IBM to name a few. Between January and May at Foxconn’s Shenzen campus 13 company employees attempted to commit suicide, with most of them succeeding. Ngai and Chan argue that these deaths need to be understood as being the product of unethical purchasing practices by foreign companies, abusive management in the factories in the interest of worker efficiency, and the role of the local Chinese government as protecting the interests of the manufacturer and not the worker. According to Chan and Ngai, pressures exerted by foreign companies for manufacturers to reduce production costs put the greatest pressure on the workers, resulting in not only long hours that far exceed legal overtime limits, but also in unrealistic demands on worker production, and even the withholding of wages. They also describe the management as abusive, with cursing and degrading remarks being common. Meanwhile, the government protects these companies by ignoring worker appeals against the company for breaking Chinese labor laws. Pun and Chan regard the Foxconn suicides as being the desperate actions of those acting against these injustices. According to Ngai and Chan, there is a large discrepancy between the expectations this second generation of workers have coming into these jobs, and the realities. Interestingly, they also note that while pay raises were granted to employees as a result of this event, operations are now being moved to inland provinces where the pay is far less. To conclude, Ngai and Chan argue that without providing better prospects and protections of rights for workers, suicides may continue as workers speak out against these injustices.

Thireau, Isabelle, and Hua Linshan. 2003. “The Moral Universe of Aggrieved Chinese Workers: Workers’ Appeals to Arbitration Committees and Letters and Visits Offices”. The China Journal. (50): 83-103

Isabelle Thireau and Hua Linshan describe here the ways in which Chinese express their sense of injustice, and how that sense of injustice corresponds with historical trends. They do this in the context of comparing the Arbitration Committees and the Letters and Visits Offices, both being avenues for the Chinese subject to express their complaints to the government. According to Linshan and Thireau, the Arbitration Committee (AC) handles cases pertaining more closely to legal aspects of labor disputes, setting out to resolve them accordingly. In this avenue complainants tend to be mainly non-manual workers with a higher salary, perhaps pertaining to the higher costs of litigation along this avenue. On the other hand, the Letters and Visits Offices are intended to provide a form of communication between the people and the government, allowing them to air grievances and suggest reforms. The Letters and Visits Offices (LVO) are more frequently employed by manual laborers, perhaps in relation to the fact that such appeals are free. This is also where collective complaints are more commonly submitted. Another major comparison between the two would look at what types of complaints are lodged. With the AC complaints are specific, cited cases where laws or promises by the government (in the case of those who work for government owned enterprises) are broken. In the case of the LVO complaints are more broad and address recurring circumstances, with few complaints being connected to a single transgression. Yet in both cases there is an appeal to ideology, especially in the LVO complaints. The ideology employed is specific to what types of complaints are being lodged to which bureau, including the use of state ideology as a ground to legitimize complaints. In all of this, Thireau and Linshan argue that the government needs to remake and clear up its legal processes so that political and social agendas can be better served.

Chan, Chris King-Chi, and Pun Ngai. 2009. “The Making of a New Working Class? A Study of Collective Actions of Migrant Workers in South China”. The China Quarterly. 198 (198): 287-303

Chris King-Chi Chan and Pun Ngai use this article to argue what they see as the development of a working class in China and the potential for future labor strikes. Citing strike instances at two major factories, they illustrate the ways in which resistance was coordinated and grievances were articulated. According to Ngai and Chan, while there is as of yet no clear articulation of class, with most group unity being centered around locality or familial connections, there is nonetheless a collective action being taken along class lines against the grievances from above, such as unpaid wages and management abuse. It is also noted that most protests are internet based, calling for improved working conditions and are set against capital, occasionally resort to legal avenues for resolution. Working and living power structures are also set as being interconnected, with the dormitories being a site for both management and strikers to contest for support from the workers. Yet, while management was often the first to be targeted by these struggles, it was noted that supervisors and technicians often played a part in underground organization of protests. They conclude by saying that such events also served to empower employees as they formulated their own opinions and participated in the strikes, thus articulating strong ideas against foreign capital and acting along class lines.

Other Sources:

Johnson, Joel, March 2011 “1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?” Wired Magazine,  http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/02/ff_joelinchina/

Foucault, Michel. 1995. “Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison.” New York: Vintage Books.

Fox, Suzanne. 2008. “China’s Changing Culture and Etiquette”. China Business Review. 35 (4): 48-51

BBC News, May 28, 2010 “Foxconn suicides: ‘Workers feel quite lonely’” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10182824

Xinhua, May 25th 2010 “Another Foxconn employee falls to death at Shenzhen factory; note found” http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2010-05/25/c_13313857.htm

Chang, Chris, May 22, 2010 “How Chinese Media Use Comics To Criticize Foxconn Tragedy”

http://micgadget.com/3997/how-chinese-media-use-comics-to-criticize-foxconn-tragedy/

-, Maureen Fan, and Foreign Service. 2006. “Critics Dispute Impact of China’s Revised Media Rules”. Washington Post

Video: CNN, June 2010 “CNN: iPhone factory struggles with suicides” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0aZWWZnXDA

MSN, June 2010, “Employees protest over ‘harsh working conditions’” http://news.ph.msn.com/photogallery.aspx?cp-documentid=4140358&page=7

 

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