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The Math Behind The Foxconn Suicides

Despite more suicides being chalked up every week, Foxconn's suicide rate still remains lower than the national average for China. Regardless of that, you can't ignore the stories of guards beating workers; stories of the miserable working conditions, nor the undercover photos of life inside the factories. [The Telegraph]

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Since it takes place in Shenzhen, which is just across the border, only a 45 minute rapid transit ride away from where I'm sitting.

It's got dimensions that are far more nuanced than the issue of whether or not Foxconn's plants have bad conditions (in mainland China, exploitation is pretty much of a given.)

The first is obvious political-national angle. Foxconn is owned by a Taiwanese mogul and makes components for Western companies. So the outrage on the China-based blogs and forums, and the student demos against Foxconn have a certain nationalistic component (which the Chinese authorities love to promote--the time worn way to hold your power is to make sure the populace is united in their anger against outsiders).

There's also some history with the press and Foxconn, explained here. Since Foxconn is a high-profile exploitative company (as opposed to your run of the mill Chinese exploitative factory), the press has gone after it before. Foxconn responded with huge anti-defamation lawsuits, not against the newspapers, but against the reporters. So the press is pissed, and running with this story as hard as they can.

This morning's South China Morning Post has a really good rundown. It's behind a firewall, so I'll excerpt:

Others say the Foxconn tragedies have exposed the limits of relying on legislation to protect workers and that more independent unions and non-governmental organisations are also needed. The government passed the controversial labour contract law three years ago, vowing that it would protect workers' rights.

The latest report by Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour said the Taiwanese manufacturer was paying some workers Shenzhen's minimum wage of 900 yuan (HK$1,026) [NOTE: that's about $135 USD] a month, making it impossible for them to turn down overtime.

Professor Wang Xiangqian, from the China Institute of Industrial Relations, said Foxconn exposed the urgent need for "stronger and more independent workers' unions" - independent from the employer, not from the Communist Party, because all workers' unions on the mainland are party-affiliated.

"Our economic development has reached a point where there must be an effective bargaining mechanism between the labourers and the employers, and that means a strong and independent workers' union," Wang said. "Without this legal weapon, the workers could only turn to other ways to express themselves, which could then bring instability to society."

According to media reports, Foxconn workers can toil for up to 12 hours without talking to anyone, follow strict rules on how long to spend on meals and toilet breaks, are subject to constant surveillance of their operations and have to work rapidly on repetitive tasks, making them feel like machines.

"A strong and independent worker's union could have tabled such unreasonable work conditions for negotiations with the employer," Wang said.

The China manufacturing boom, so far, has proceeded without much thought to protecting workers. So it's huge that a mainland academic from a government institute feels free to comment publicly about the need for beefed up labor unions in China. It means a) the government knows they've got a problem and b) the labor protection issue is probably under discussion at higher levels.

Also huge is this:

A professor of sociology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Pun Ngai, and eight mainland professors issued an open letter last week calling for the scrapping of the hukou residential permit system - which prevents migrant workers from settling in cities. They said this would remove the pay differences that confront migrant workers, along with other policy and social discrimination.

"Employers must raise wages, but above all the hukou system must be abolished," Pun said. "Once workers are allowed to live in the cities long-term, they would naturally demand higher salaries, and they would no longer need to live in eight-person-to-a-room dormitories."

The hukou system has dominated Chinese life since the days of Mao. Foxconn--and most other--Chinese factory workers are penned in crappy factory dormitories because they can't get permits to settle in cities like Shenzhen. So they are trapped into the system of factory serfdom, virtual prisoners of their employers.

Changing the hukou system, even just liberalizing it, will make a enormous change in the lives of Chinese workers.