External Structural Cause of Foxconn Tragedy

By Vincent Zhang

A dozen of suicide cases brought to light the dark mode of production in Foxconn, which is the major assembly base in the supply chain of Apple. It is no wonder that people, after hearing such astonishing news, immediately attribute the entire responsibility to Foxconn, thus neglecting the whole picture. Never forget that the internal cause cannot function without the assistance of external conditions. In Foxconn case, the reality of poor law enforcement indulges such enterprises to ignore their duty recklessly. On the other hand, societal causes such as scarcity of working opportunities and unequal bargaining power between employees and employers trapped workers without giving them any choice but to stay and be exploited.

Breaking the Labour Law? So what?

Do not get surprised by the fact that there is actually explicit labour law prohibiting Foxconn’s ruthless exploitation of workers. According to section 36 of Chinese Labour Law, “labours shall work for no more than 8 hours a day or more than 44 hours a week on average.” For extension of working hours, section 41 prescribes that after negotiation with the trade union and labourers, the employer may require to extend working hour for not exceeding 1 hour per day, and for special reasons, for not exceeding 3 hours a day under the condition that the health of labourers is guaranteed. “However, the total extension in a month shall not exceed 36 hours.”

In a sharp contrast, according to a questionnaire survey among Foxconn workers, 75% of them only have 4 days off per month on average, 73.3% work for more than 10 hours per day, and the average monthly extension of work is 83.2 hours, more than doubling the legal monthly extension hours (Jin, 2010). It is no defense to claim that the extension is in agreement with the labourers as a proper interpretation of section 41 suggests that the ceiling of 36 hours extension per month shall not be conditioned by any negotiation. The obvious conclusion is that Foxconn breaks the law.

But so what? The logical legal consequence does not follow, and the deterrence and corrective effect of law are nowhere to be found. After the serial suicide cases were reported, related supervision organs of Shenzhen government simply claimed ignorance of the above facts at all, without any intention and effort to investigate the criminal liability (Jin, 2010). Even the violation of law was recognized by All-China Federation Trade Unions (ACFTU), which is supposed to be the only organization to protect worker’s rights, it explicitly refused to take any action but rather left the issue to be dealt with by Foxconn itself. It seems a matter of course to some official in ACFTU that enterprises like Foxconn, which exercise a low-end mode of production, are not able to bear more social responsibilities. However it demonstrates no will to take initiatives to mediate the undesirable situation (Xi, 2010).

Failure in law enforcement is not restricted to Shenzhen. Foxconn (Yantai) refused to pay accumulation fund for years and avoided around 200 million RMB yuan’s liability every year. Surprisingly, such violation of regulations invited no sanctions from the government, but rather Foxconn (Yantai) was awarded the title “Outstanding Enterprise in Implementation of Social Responsibilities”. It is believed that because Foxconn is the largest Taiwan-invested enterprise contributing a great deal to local government revenue, as a natural result the government ranks interest of the enterprise much higher than that of labourers (Zhang, 2010). Thus understandably, government interest indirectly curbs the effective implementation of labour protection scheme.

Why not escape from Foxconn?

Now that in the first place government cares little about the labour exploitation in Foxconn, it is no use for workers to turn to it and complain about their miseries. The only way out seems to be passive resistance: leaving Foxconn. But is it really feasible as one would ordinarily expect? Again counter-intuitively, few workers elected to leave Foxconn or cut their extension.

If we bear in mind the whole picture of Chinese labour environment, we may understand workers’ psychology. Actually Foxconn is much more favoured than many of other employers simply because it pays workers on time and strictly according to written standard. Such a low threshold of satisfaction reveals how serious the problem is with labourers’ rights protection in China. Quite consistent with Maslow’s hierarchy of need model, it seems better to be exploited but guarantee earning a life than to work under the risk of no return (Why Workers Do Not Leave Foxconn, 2010).

Similarly out of the life pressure, people bear with the long-time extension of work. If we analyze the composition of workers’ background, the majority of them come from rural or less developed areas in China lacking working opportunities. In other to make their livings people migrate in waves to eastern coastal cities, find jobs in enterprises like Foxconn and face much higher standard of commodity price there. Therefore, although they earn salaries much higher than in their home places, living standard remains. The only way for them to afford living in big cities would subjecting themselves to extension of work (Lu, 2010).

Thus it would be naïve to blame the workers for not fighting without considering the external condition which traps them in endless working and psychological torture. The sad reality is that: what lies behind Foxconn’s evil are grey, profound and irreconcilable social problems in China.


Jin, H. (2010). 《富士康屡屡出轨暴露监管缺位》. Retrieved 4 9, 2011, from Gmw.cn: http://guancha.gmw.cn/2010-10/09/content_1296097.htm

Lu, Q. (2010). 《第十跳!他们为什么不离开富士康的秘密!》. Retrieved 4 9, 2011, from DBW.CN: http://enterprise.dbw.cn/system/2010/05/25/052528362.shtml

Why Workers Do Not Leave Foxconn. (2010, 7 5). Retrieved 4 9, 2011, from Sohu: http://stock.sohu.com/20100705/n273290038.shtml

Xi, J. (2010). 《总工会:富士康让工人长时间加班违反劳动法》. Retrieved 4 9, 2011, from Sohu: http://it.sohu.com/20101105/n277171181.shtml

Zhang, T. (2010). 《富士康拒交公积金底气何来》. Retrieved 4 9, 2011, from Eastday: http://pinglun.eastday.com/p/20100605/u1a5245056.html


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