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.

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)

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.

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.)

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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