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Foxconn Deaths Illuminate Deeper Tragedies in China’s Workforce

Michelle Chen

Image versus reality: The future looks bright for workers on Foxconn's website, but a recent spate of worker suicides at company factories indicates otherwise.

The young workers had one thing in common when they took a deadly plunge at their massive factory in Shenzhen. The day before, each symbolized the vanguard of China’s economic miracle. The day after, each body attested to the hidden labor crisis rending China’s social fabric.

Their employer, Foxconn Technology Group, should be considered a paragon of multinational success: the Taiwanese-owned electronics company, a division of the Hon Hai Group, supplies major brand names around the world, including Apple and Dell. The factory that has seen ten suicides since the start of the year represents China’s vibrant growth as well as a labor structure that subjects hundreds of thousands of workers to a monstrous industrial complex.

The workers who took their own lives were less remarkable. They were in fact fatally typical of the millions of migrants who flock to cities in search of jobs: young, desperately hopeful, strained by pressure from their families to secure a toehold in China’s roaring economy.

Not surprisingly, the profiles of the suicides, as documented in a report by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), exhibited alarming signs of emotional instability feeding into the suicide phenomenon. 

Li, in his early 20s, jumped from a 5th floor dormitory after his Chinese New Year wages were stolen. …

Rao believed that it was difficult for her to resign without losing her wages. At that time [when she attempted suicide], I had only 15 yuan left. Earlier, I borrowed 50 yuan from my co-worker. I was running into deep [financial] problems,” she said …

Lu allegedly suffered from a psychiatric disorder. According to his friends, Lu showed symptoms of delusions like being followed and threatened [by someone who wants to kill him].” He was on the verge of personal breakdown around the May Day Holiday (on the 1st May International Labor Day, 2010).

Commentators suggested that Lu’s mental problems were triggered and related to work pressure.

SACOM notes that long before the most recent incidents, in 2007, a young migrant from Hunan hanged herself in her dormitory, and last year, a young university graduate jumped from the 14th floor and left behind a note that read, Too much work pressure; unstable emotions.”

While the latest spike in suicides is unusually intense, the pattern of young people ending their lives illustrates a cumulus of misery: inhumane working conditions and a deep lack of social supports for transient migrant workers.

SACOM’s report question[s] Foxconn’s framing of the suicides as isolated, individual cases,” citing harsh working conditions including 10 to 12-hour shifts and a tense and atomized” climate on the shop floor, where work consists of monotonous, repetitive motions” at a hurried pace.

While the Foxconn facility is considered sophisticated by developing-world standards, the labor system reflects the Tayloristic scientific management” strategies of an earlier industrial era. Worker testimonies gathered by the U.S.-based advocacy group China Labor Watch depicts an intensely disciplined, heavily guarded and psychologically isolating factory environment.

We finish one step in every 7 seconds, which requires us to concentrate and keep working and working. We work faster even than the machines. Every shift (10 hours), we finish 4,000 Dell computers, all the while standing up. We can accomplish these assignments through collective effort, but many of us feel worn out.”

Foxconn and its international affiliates have responded with a massive damage-control campaign, deploying plenty of public contrition, vigilant therapists and soothing monks, and most recently, a perhaps cynical promise to boost wages. Plans to build new barricades to prevent future jumps betray the anxiety percolating beneath Foxconn’s ultra-efficient veneer.

The company has offered a hotline and other outlets for distressed workers, but China Labor Watch says such measures are but an empty shell,” and some workers fear retaliation from management if they speak out.

We’ll never know to what extent the deaths are directly attributable to Foxconn. Some question whether the suicide wave is not anomalous but in line with national trends, and whether workers’ personal problems were the main factor.

But Foxconn’s tragedy is just a snapshot of a swelling national malaise, rooted in breakneck economic growth in the absence of democratic channels for self-expression. It’s perhaps not surprising that the suicides coincide with a rash of stabbings of children at several schools—another pattern of senseless violence that reflects widespread psychological dislocation.

SACOM called the deaths a wakeup call for industries that feed off China’s oppressive labor landscape:

Without stronger protections for Chinese migrant workers’ rights to unionize and strive for decent work, it seems almost certain we will witness a growing list of deaths.

China’s weak state-controlled labor unions can do little to stem systemic social problems. On the other hand, workers cannot be seen as mere victims in this narrative. As the recent direct action at a Honda factory has illustrated, grassroots labor activists may find a way to use self-empowerment, as opposed to self-annihilation, to challenge corporate hegemony.

Some activists hope Foxconn’s troubles prompt global soul-searching about China’s capitalist explosion. The current fallout might expose the irresponsibility and shortsightedness of CEOs, but Chinese policymakers too have obligations, not only to protect labor rights but also to redress the marginalization and disenfranchisement of migrant workers. And ultimately, China’s draconian manufacturing system is fueled by American corporations, and by us, the consumers who keep Shenzhen’s assembly lines humming.

Li Qiang of China Labor Watch told In These Times that non-governmental organizations should on the one hand influence government’s labor policies, and on the other, urge consumers to pressure multi-nationals to take more social responsibilities. If possible, trade unions should be an important form of participation to solve the problem too.”

In the 1980s, China’s ambitious reforms promised vast new opportunities for social advancement. A generation later, the heirs to that dream are losing control of their economic destinies. Adrift in a sea of well-trained drones, too many young workers may come to assume that their individual lives are, like every other tool that their bosses use to exhaustion, disposable.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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