by Erin Wigger and Peter Schnall
Foxconn (which manufactures iPhones and iPads for Apple) has experienced a number of suicides in the last two years – 14 to date, as well as a number of unsuccessful attempts. The company responded by raising wages 66% at it’s Shenzen plant, boosting its number of counselors, and making stress management programs available to workers there. It also built safety netting around the factory to prevent further suicide attempts and required that all employees sign a “no suicide” clause in their contract (effectively preventing further payouts to families in the event of a death by suicide). Foxconn also responded with claims that it’s number of suicides, per capita, are not much higher than China’s national average - implying the suicides are not the result of conditions at the manufacturing plant.
However, on January 2nd approximately 150 workers took to the roof of Foxconn’s factory in Wuhan threatening mass suicide if their demands for better pay were not met. The New York Times reports that workers involved in the protest made accused Foxconn of reneging on the salary initially offered workers agreeing to leave the Wuhan factory - paying only a third of the previously proposed salary - and cited unfair treatment at the plant as the reason for their protest. (Recall the many stories that have appeared in the press of the oppressive working conditions at Foxconn with workers reporting excessive work weeks of 72 hours or more, militaristic supervision, low wages, and company induced indebtedness that have prevented many workers from leaving it's factories.)
A protest of this nature is shocking. It is hard to condone this type of negotiation or to imagine it is anything but counter-productive in terms of entering into a legitimate dialogue between employers and employees. So what drove it into being? Is this an act of absolute desperation on the part of a collectively abused and exploited labor force, or the extremist tactics of workers trying to coerce the company into bending to their demands?
If this were the first step worker’s had made toward resolving their conflict that would be one thing. But this protest came about only after Foxconn rejected workers attempts at bargaining and issued an ultimatum: resign and receive compensation or stay and continue on the same pay scale as before. In response to these conditions, approximately 45 employees resigned, but none received any compensation.
This underlines the fact that Chinese employees have no safety net. They do not have the avenues of recourse we, as Americans, enjoy – though these rights in the U.S. are being whittled away daily (e.g. recall the recent Wisconsin Union Bill intended to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights). In China, Geoffrey Crathall, Director at the China Labor Bulletin, was quoted to have said “employees feel they have no other option. If there were proper channels for the resolution of grievances, they wouldn’t have needed to resort to such actions” and, after weighing the facts, it is hard to disagree. Poor working conditions and pure desperation seem to have driven these workers to the roof.
The protest ended eight hours later after workers were talked down by Foxconn managers and local Chinese Communist Party officials. It remains dubious as to whether or not the dispute over wages has been adequately settled or not.