Book review: The Serial Jumps behind Foxconn’s Success (《富士康輝煌背後的連環跳》)

 

In September 2010, the “General Investigation Report of Foxconn”, the report of an investigation conducted by scholars from more than 20 Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong universities on the serial suicides happened in Foxconn, was published. Five major problems in Foxconn have been identified, together with an interview with a survived 17-year-old victim of suicide. With some modification, the content of the Report has been published in February 2011 as a book titled The Serial Jumps behind Foxconn’s Success. Being a combination of both reports of facts and narratives of workers’ story, the book enables us to have a better and deeper understanding of what the serial suicides have reflected.

The scale of Foxconn and the serial jumps

Foxconn is a Taiwan-funded enterprise established by Gou Tai-ming. In 2010, it ranked 112th among Global Fortune 500 Companies, and had more than 50% of share of total revenue of global electronic manufacturing industries. Many large brands in electronic industries are its clients, including HP, Microsoft, Nokia, Dell, Apple, Cisco, Intel, Motorola, Lenovo and Samsung. With regard to its manufacturing in China, it has hired more than 900.000 workers and had more than 20 production bases. These all show that Foxconn is actually one of the world largest electronic manufacturing enterprises.

What has made this large enterprise become notorious is the series of suicide happened since 2010. When the Report was published in September 2010, there were already 17 victims (though now it has increased to 19). All victims are youths aged between 17 and 25. Most of them committed suicide by jumping from their dormitory, and among them, only four has survived. It is the high frequency of suicide and the young age of the victims which have raised public awareness of the labour issues in Foxconn. What has gone wrong in this enterprise? Has the situation improved after this series of tragedies? These are the main focus of the book.

5 problems of Foxconn identified

1. Abuse of student interns

One feature observed in Foxconn employment is that there are quite a large number of student interns. They are usually students from vocational schools, and are required to have internship experience before being graduated. Since hiring student interns are not regarded by law as employment, Foxconn can accordingly escape from the legal responsibility of buying labour insurance for them. Another advantage Foxconn can take is that the wage level for interns is lower than that of ordinary workers. It is also discovered that vocational schools and teachers are colluding with Foxconn, at the expense of the interest of those student interns. Some students have even been forced to do no-pay overtime works.

What the student interns have brought to Foxconn is an abundant supply of young labour. Apart from student interns, the average age of Foxconn workers is relatively low; it is the consideration that young workers have better physical strength to conduct labour-intensive works which triggers such a tendency of hiring young workers. This also explains why the victims of suicide are all youths.

2. Over-pursuant of efficiency

To achieve high efficiency, Foxconn manages workers with strict rules and rankings. Absolute obedience is required from the lowest level workers. Behaviour in the working place is highly disciplined; workers are not allowed to chat and even laugh. They are also required to meet high level of production. Failure of meeting that level would result in no-pay overtime working. Workers are all under great pressure accordingly.

Moreover, the working procedures are highly standardized, which makes accumulation of skill quite impossible. Workers are simply treated as machine rather than human beings.

3. Destruction of workers’ social life

Intense overtime working aside, Foxconn’s provision of centrally-managed dormitory extends the business management with strict rules from working place to also the workers’ private life. Workers who live in Foxconn’s dormitory has to be abided by a lot of rules. Together with overtime working, they basically do not have much leisure time to enjoy their social life.

Another problem is that most workers find difficulties in building up inter-personal network in the working place. Workers are prohibited from entering the others’ dormitory buildings, which prevents them from knowing one another well. They are atomized and the problem of alienation is serious. They thus find difficulties to seek help when are in troubles. Since many of them are migrant worker from other rural areas, with the difficulties in building up social network in working place, they are basically deprived of any social life.

4. Problems with working injuries

Although some of the Foxconn’s factories are relatively safe, those involving electroplating manufacturing often expose workers to poisonous chemicals. Such exposures risk causing permanent damage to workers’ nervous system and long-term body deterioration. The problem is that these long term effects may not be obvious during the employment, so those workers who have left Foxconn and have found health problems afterward may not get any compensation.

Concerning those physical injuries, workers also find difficulties in getting their insurance compensation. The procedures of reporting are complex, and their managers have incentives to conceal the incidents, for occurrence of injuries will reduce the managers annual bonus. The consequence is that usually the managers provide a small amount of compensation to the workers, instead of letting them to claim insurance.

The worse situation is that after the injuries have happened, the injured workers are sometimes blamed for careless operation of machines. In other words, the injured workers are regarded as responsible for their own injuries. This affects their qualification of claiming compensation, and some of them even have to pay for the hospital fee on a self-funded basis.

5. Ineffective labour union

Although there is a labour union in Foxconn, it has very limited effects on protecting workers’ rights against the corporation. On one hand, only very few workers know its existence and functions. On the other hand, those who know the labour union think that it represents the interest of managers rather than workers.Since the labour union is ineffective in protecting workers’ rights, the bargaining power of workers are even weaker when compared with the enterprise.

Only Foxconn’s problems?

In the conclusion of the book, it is said:

“Foxconn, as a ‘Super World Factory’, is only an outstanding example out of many China manufacturing factories, an epitome of China being ‘the World Factory’. Although workers may choose to leave Foxconn, under China’s industrial economic structure they can only choose among different Sweatshops, to sell themselves to either this ‘Foxconn’ or another ‘Foxconn’.” (p.199, my translation)

Although the media focus is on Foxconn, it may only be a reflection of a broader picture of the life of Chinese workers. Therefore, at the same time of understanding the problems in Foxconn, we should also notice that labour issues are pressing in other parts of China, and also over the world.

Christopher Ho

Related information

General Investigation Report of Foxconn (in Chinese):http://mfiles.sohu.com/it/foxconn.doc

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