A recent spate of deaths of workers employed by Foxconn-a major technology manufacturer and supplier to Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sony and others-is drawing the ire of labor watch groups that find the living and working conditions of Chinese factory workers to be tantamount to slave labor. As eWEEK previously reported, eight workers have died at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, in 2010 from presumed suicide after "falling" off factory buildings.
Though the deaths have not been confirmed officially as suicides, it is widely believed that suicide has occurred at the Foxconn facility. It is also believed these suicides are begetting copycat attempts, as experts say such events often happen in clusters, reported Time magazine. The deaths shine a light on the physical and psychological damage young, migrant Chinese workers face day to day in the factory ecosystem.
"The young workers-and the vast majority of the workers are young-have a very hard life," said Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, a labor advocacy group that has reported extensively on Chinese factory abuses, including those of KYE Systems, a major supplier to Microsoft and other technology companies. "All they do is work and sleep. These young workers are just an appendage to the machines they work on. Each day is a combination of deadly monotony and an exhausting race to meet the excessive production goals. The work is mind-numbing. Also the workers are constantly monitored as if they were in the military. Many factories, especially those with Taiwanese owners, force the workers to do military-like drills at the beginning and end of each shift."
Foxconn, owned by Hon Hai Group, a Taiwanese company, has stated publicly that is getting things under control.
"It is very difficult to manage a manufacturing team of more than 800,000 people," CEO Terry Gou said to an economic forum May 24, according to The Wall Street Journal. "There are many things to do every day. But we are confident we will be able to stabilize the situation very soon."
What are typical work days like in these factories? Repetitious labor, followed by more labor, and squalid dormitory living with little room for education or socializing, given the turnover rates among factory workers
"OT is routinely obligatory and even if in some few cases it is not mandatory, the workers feel compelled to put in the extra hours since that is the only way they can survive," Kernaghan said. "No one could even come close to surviving on the legal minimum wage-and here we are talking about living in primitive company dorms and eating hardly edible institutional cafeteria food. We have never met a worker in any of these high-tech factories who believes they will ever enter the middle class. They have little or no hope for their lives."
One big question is how American technology companies doing business in China with suppliers such as Foxconn and KYE, using the cheap labor of Asian manufacturing to help make their products profitable in the United States, perceive the impact of the challenges faced by factory workers.
"I don't believe for a second that the multinational high-tech corporations care about the young workers in China; that is not part of the equation," Kernaghan said. "Apple, HP, Microsoft, etc., did not go to China because they like the people there. They are there because of the low wages, the lack of benefits, the absence of independent unions and NGOs, the complications that would come with a democratic government. The companies are doing nothing concrete to protect worker rights.
"Microsoft and the other tech companies have demanded and won all sorts of legal protections for their products-intellectual property and copyright laws-which are backed up by sanctions. However, when we ask Microsoft if it would not be critical to extend similar laws to protect the fundamental rights of their workers, Microsoft and the other companies say, 'No. That would be an impediment to free trade.' In other words, this is a game. The workers have no legal rights. That is why HP, Apple, etc., developed corporate codes of conduct, so they could claim they are struggling to protect workers' rights."
There are, however, worker protection laws such as minimum wage laws on the books in China, but they vary from region to region and even from districts within cities, and are often ignored completely, said officials at the National Labor Committee. The wages are so low, labor advocacy groups say, that workers feel compelled to work overtime to make money to send home to families after paying for food and housing.
"In Guangzhou City, the minimum wage was increased in May to 1100 rmb per month-approximately 93 cents an hour," Kernaghan said. "Before the May increase, wages were 68 cents an hour. However, take-home wages can drop significantly after deductions for dorm and food. The minimum wage in Dongguan [where KYE is located] was increased from 770 rmb to 920 rmb per month, which makes the current hourly wage approximately 84 cents an hour."
According to Time, roughly two dozen protesters advocated for higher wages and worker rights outside the Hong Kong offices of Foxconn the week of May 24. Time wrote:
"Foxconn says it has provided social options like libraries and sports for its workers, and recently has prevented many more attempted suicides. But labor activists argue it needs to make more fundamental changes, like paying higher wages so that workers don't feel forced to work so many overtime hours."