There’s a good chance you own a Foxconn product. They make stuff for Apple, HP, Dell, Nintendo, Microsoft, Intel Cisco, and other hi-tech giants. If you’ve never heard of them, don’t feel bad.
But listen up.
In 2010 there was a rash of suicides at Foxconn plants in China. Workers were jumping off factory and dormitory roofs. An article in Wired from 2010 describes leisurely hour-long lunches and concludes that “those unskilled laborers who get jobs at Foxconn are the luckiest”. But a 2006 study by the Daily Mail paints a very different picture of work conditions at Foxconn.
‘We have to work too hard and I am always tired. It’s like being in the army. They make us stand still for hours. If we move we are punished by being made to stand still for longer. [...] We have to work overtime if we are told to and can only go back to the dormitories when our boss gives us permission,’ says Zang Lan. ‘If they ask for overtime we must do it. After working 15 hours until 11.30pm, we feel so tired.’
The Hong Kong advocacy group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has been following the situation at Foxconn factories for a while. When the suicides got big press attention, Apple said it would demand changes and make sure that Foxconn changed, as they promised to do. But according to SACOM, Apple and Foxconn have failed to keep their promises.
Apparently the only thing Foxconn did was put up nets, so that workers physically could not jump off the buildings.
And then there was the explosion at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu last week. When I first saw the headlines about this incident, I was amazed by how worried everyone was that iPad production might be slowed. “What will it mean for Apple stock?” one news report asked. “Will there be enough iPads for Christmas?” asked another.
It wasn’t until I dug to the bottom of the second article that I learned that three workers had died. How twisted is that? The news doesn’t even want to talk about the dead workers until after we soothe the fears of stock traders and consumption trend-watchers.
In March and April, SACOM conducted investigations at Foxconn’s plants in Chengdu. The work safety in both northern and southern campuses is alarming.
During my research, I learned about a 2008 law in China that made some tiny little changes to make workers’ lives better in that country. Guess who lobbied against it? Wal-Mart and other corporations, including Google, UPS, Microsoft, Nike, AT&T, and Intel, through the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
China’s proposed legislation will not eliminate its labor problems. The law will not provide Chinese workers with the right to independent trade unions with leaders of their own choosing and the right to strike. But foreign corporations are attacking the legislation not because it provides workers too little protection but because it provides them too much.
But wait, there’s more! Today I came across this fun article, about prisoners in China. It features an interview with Liu Dali, who served over two years in a Chinese work camp for “‘illegally petitioning’ federal authorities about corruption in his local government”. So after spending a full day digging trenches and carving chopsticks, how did the guards help him relax?
They made him farm gold.
The scheme, a practice referred to among gamers as “gold farming,” required some 300 prisoners at the Jixi labor camp to gather currency (usually by repeating monotonous tasks) in multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, which the guards then hawked online for cash.
I’ve always viewed the concept of gold-farming as repugnant, but I read a defense of it somewhere recently. (“I have a busy work life. I want the best sword but I don’t have time to quest for it. It’s better than lots of other jobs in China!”) Just remember this, if you decide to buy that +3 Plate Mail on WoW: It may be lacquered with the blood of a Chinese political prisoner.
Annie Leonard is my favorite internet person right now. Her Story of Stuff series is excellent and entertaining. Apropos of the above, here’s The Story of Electronics.