by Peter L. Schnall, MD MPH
David Barbosa reported in The NY Times today, Feb 19th 2012, that Foxconn has announced it will sharply raise salaries for workers in its Chinese factories by 16 to 25% bringing wages to about $400 month which is $16 day (1).
This is a large wage increase but will it really solve the problems related to overtime as well as those due to the organization of work at Foxconn which includes a militaristic work environment, reports of punitive actions for rule breaking, monotonous work, lack of breaks, low social support, inability to talk with co-workers during working hours, among many other issues?
One psychosocial factor associated with work is called “effort reward imbalance” or ERI for short. This model of work stress was pioneered by Johannes Siegrist and defines threatening job conditions as a “mismatch between high workload (high demand) and low control over long-term rewards" When ERI is present this results in stress and has serious health outcomes (e.g., depression and hypertension) See www.unhealthywork.org for more details about psychosocial work stressors.
Long-term rewards include job security and possibility for upward mobility (promotion prospects) as well as wages. So raising wages may help here but the key issue is not simply the absolute level of wages but the nature of the rewards and the imbalance between effort and reward. Workers by all reports are putting in enormous effort (80 hours of work per with overtime), and the rewards workers are looking for include support on the job, job security, opportunity for advancement and a sense of purpose (2). After all, what is the point of having money if one doesn’t have a community in which to live and a future.
Most of the problems reported at Foxconn have little to do with whether workers are receiving an adequate wage. This is implicitly acknowledged by Foxconn, which also announced yesterday that they would begin reducing “mandatory” overtime hours at its factories. Unfortunately 60 hours of work per week, which is the law in China, is not enforced and is also excessive and harmful. Still moving toward 60 hours work/week with higher wages are both steps in the right direction.
When will Foxconn and Apple begin to acknowledge and address the issues of work organization, which many have been documenting over the past several years? When will China enforce its own labor laws regarding work hours?
Schnall PL, Landsbergis PA. Job Strain and Cardiovascular Disease. Ann. Rev. Public Health 1994, 15:381-411.