The Rebellion at Foxconn

Foxconn Technology Group is the largest manufacturer of electronics and computer components worldwide. If you own something by Apple, Nokia, HP, Dell, or if you own a Kindle, a game console, or anything with an Intel motherboard, it was probably made at Foxconn. The company’s main manufacturing plant is located in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, a sprawling compound described by the Wall Street Journal as “The Forbidden City of [Foxconn CEO] Terry Gou.” Something like 400,000 employees live and work there, work that proceeds at a pace that a Chinese journalist named Liu Zhiyi (writing for Southern Weekend) describes as transforming you into “a component that’s entered the assembly line, just following the rhythm, belonging to that heartbeat at 4am, no way to escape.” While certainly poetic, this also goes some way to explain the twelve-plus employee suicide attempts so far this year (I think we might be up to sixteen or seventeen now — at least ten of which have been successful). It’s gotten so bad that the technology site Engadget (where I am a contributing editor) has been keeping a sort of suicide watch, while my colleagues at the Computex trade show in Taipei were greeted upon their arrival by protesters branding Apple CEO Steve Jobs an “OEM profit bloodsucker.”

Poor Steve, why is he the one being singled out for this? Well, Foxconn itself provides some stunning images: a fortified “sweatshop” compound! Wage slaves throwing themselves from the roofs! Jobs is as high-profile as you get in this industry, the CEO that people either love or love to hate. For better or worse, Apple has come to symbolize America’s addiction to consumer electronics — one that relies on the globalization of corporate capitalism, and all of its ill-effects.

In his book Going Postal: Rage Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond, Mark Ames makes the argument that rebellion — actions that seek to change or destroy the established order, whether it be the government, your school, or your boss — is seldom, if ever, logical. Hell, it’s seldom even recognized. It takes place, he says, “in a contextual vacuum,” and it is only after the fact that “an intellectual or ideological frame [is] provided to explain or ground them and to give them a sense of dramatic order.” Rebellion is often spontaneous and are almost always perceived as “senseless,” the products of a deficient mind. The book goes into great detail describing the paucity of slave resistance in North America (under a dozen incidents from the mid-1500s to the end of the Civil War) and demonstrates how this could be: until the end of institutionalized slavery it was considered unrealistic (even by the vast majority of abolitionists) that slavery COULD be abolished. For three hundred years, slavery was an appalling, inhumane institution. It really is a shame that the time was never right to do anything about it! Indeed, Americans were so conditioned to accept slavery as a fact of life that, as Ames writes, they:

…blamed any slave unrest or rebellion on ‘outside agitators,’ whether on Northern abolitionist extremist or alien Jacobins. And they sincerely believed it. They couldn’t even imagine that domestic conditions, that the very institution of slavery, caused slaves to rebel. It didn’t make sense to them and those who suggested such a thing simply ‘didn’t understand.’ To suggest that slavery as an institution and the South’s culture caused black insurrection and violence was dangerous lunacy.

Of course, no one is suggesting that Foxconn employees are slaves. For his part, Steve Jobs had the following to say while speaking at a conference called D: All Things Digital recently. When asked about the life-averse employees at the plant that is responsible for so much of his hardware, he responded (and he seemed sincerely concerned):

We are on top of this. We look at everything at these companies. I can tell you a few things that we know. And we are all over this. Foxconn is not a sweatshop. It’s a factory — but my gosh, they have restaurants and movie theaters… but it’s a factory. But they’ve had some suicides and attempted suicides — and they have 400,000 people there. The rate is under what the US rate is, but it’s still troubling.

My gosh!

Sure, Foxconn is not a sweatshop. And its employees are certainly not slaves. What else could he say? The visionary Buddhist CEO Steve Jobs is worth something like $5.5 billion (that’s on top of his symbolic $1 salary from Apple), wealth that comes from the backs of the workers of Foxconn.

Even on this side of The Great Firewall a picture of life at the Foxconn plant is emerging. This workforce seems to be a patchwork of various Chinese ethnic groups, mostly young people who find themselves largely isolated, forced to sign something called a “voluntary overtime affidavit,” annulling the 36-hour / month legal cap on overtime. These people seemingly live in a corporate culture that reinforces isolation among its employees and insists on 12-hour workdays, all so its employees can earn less in a month than it would cost to purchase one of the iPhones they built (which sell for something like 2,198 yuan, or around $322). Indeed, one report places the average monthly wage at around $132 — while the company has recently announced net profits for Q1 2010 to the tune of US$568.73 million (that’s a 34.8 percent increase). Sweatshop? This sounds more like a corporate city-state, described by Liu Zhiyi as having “the scale of a medium-sized town, all smooth and orderly.” Of course, “smooth and orderly” can also be unjust and oppressive.

In light of all this, it isn’t hard to see how some employees could come to see suicide not just as an escape, but as a means of rebellion. And if this is a rebellion there are some signs that all was not in vain.

  • “[CEO Tony] Gou was quoted Thursday by Taiwan media saying Foxconn plans to relocate some facilities and about a fifth of the Shenzhen workforce to western regions of China where many of its workers come from to allow them to be near home.” AFP, May 28, 2010
  • After an investigation into the Foxconn suicides, “Apple believes that low wages or a major incentive for such cases. To enable the public out of the plight of Foxconn as soon as possible, Apple decided to Foxconn, Apple’s products, foundry workers to give direct financial subsidies.” Zhongguancun Online News, May 31
  • “Taiwan contract electronics maker Hon Hai Precision Industry, the owner of Foxconn, said on Wednesday that the cash component of wages would rise by 30 percent effective immediately, more than the 20 percent rise the company had talked about late last month.” Reuters, June 2, 2010

And, if that doesn’t work:

Terry Guo, chairman of the Foxconn Group, has sought the aid of an exorcist in an attempt to put an end to the recent run of negative incidents at the plant.

DigiTimes, May 14, 2010