This is a pretty serious issue that has arisen over in China that may have alluded some people’s attention. Foxconn, one of the largest manufacturers of high tech products, has become the center of serious controversy in the past two weeks. To date, upwards of 10 workers in the Foxconn’s facilities have committed suicide over poor working conditions. Now to be fair, Foxconn and many other Chinese factories have relatively high suicide rates compared to US and European factories due to the state of manufacturing conditions throughout East and South Asia. What makes this latest series of deaths alarming (and much more imperative to rectify) is their alarming frequency. Apparently the source of these latest rounds of deaths stems from accusations that employees have been poisoned by a toxic solution used to clean the glass panels used on Apple’s iPads, which Foxconn builds. This clear violation of worker safety, coupled with barely livable wages (around $130 a month) and indications of worker abuse (a report last week indicates that another employee died from exhaustion after a 34 hour shift) seems to have forced the hand of employees who see no other way to make their plight clear to the outside world than by taking their own lives. My heart goes out to these employees of Foxconn and as well to any other exploited workers in these factories. That said, I do not support their decision to stage their protest via suicide.
But it has been effective.
Following these rash deaths and reports of serious worker abuse, the major business partners affiliated with Foxconn have pledged to do their part to improve the situation for Foxconn workers. Nintendo, whose Wii system is assembled in Foxconn facilities, has stated that they will fully investigate the situation in the factories. Apple has announced that it is looking into worker abuse claims and may soon subsidize the wages of workers who build their products, along with keeping stronger oversight on worker conditions. Foxconn itself has been less proactive. For a country that was supposed to be built by the proletariat, for the proletariat; China has little in the way of worker’s rights laws to protect these individuals. To be frank, the state of industrial manufacturing in China is much like that of 19th century Europe and America in their total control of workers’ lives – large factories are more like cities than places of work. People live, work, eat and sleep in these massive facilities that can employ over 100,000 workers and their families. With such stifling control over their employees, Foxconn has little incentive or legal necessity to improve the per work quality of life. The company has pledged to increase wages by 33% for all workers; but for those of you keeping score at home, that comes to a $.14 increase from $.45 an hour to $.59. In addition to that “generous” wage hike, Foxconn is now making employees sign a pledge that they will not jump off company property (I shit you not).
Clearly, it’s not enough.
A recent open letter to Apple, Dell, and Nintendo from an editor at Kotaku I think sums up the action that is needed to end these serious violations of worker health and safety. Apple and Dell, at least, have the choice to bring their manufacturing back to America. You see, there was a time in the not too distant past when a manufacturing job was coveted. Factory workers were paid excellent wages and could buy houses, cars, and even the products that they themselves were building. Chinese workers have no such luck, despite a growing middle class in East Asia. In the past 30 years, America has lost jobs and opportunities to the exporting of jobs to countries with cheap labor while our own country has become an unsustainable consumer economy instead of a production economy. I’m not going to go on a nationalist rant about the value of “buying America” and all that jazz, but I think that American tech companies, at this juncture, have some very important decisions to make. They can continue to support these new age sweat shops for cheap labor, or they can return manufacturing to United States and insure higher quality in exchange for a slightly higher sticker price. For Apple, that price may not change at all due to their high margins price; while Dell and other OEMs can raise their prices in a reverse of their “race to the bottom” trend of the past 15 years.
China? They’ll be fine. Chinese consumption is escalating like clockwork, and a time will come when those factories will be too busy supplying their own population to send stuff over to us. The quality gap between chinese goods and their western counterparts is closing at faster pace than ever before, and it won’t be long before more success stories arise like Lenovo.
The time is yours, American companies. By standing by these factories in their current abusive state, you passively support their abuse. Either start sweeping changes to the way these factories are run, or get the hell out of dodge.