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Foxconn's arduous struggle with labour woes in China

Publication Date : 11-10-2012


What is wrong with Foxconn?

Trouble has continued to dog the world's biggest assembler of electronics products, despite its taking steps this year to improve life for its Chinese workers.

Its moves in cutting long working hours and raising wages even earned praise from the United States-based Fair Labour Association, which audited three Foxconn factories in August.

All was well - until early last month, when the company was accused of forcing students to work as interns at its factories, to rush out Apple's new iPhone 5 orders.

Then, in the past two weeks, the Taiwanese electronics giant had to handle disruptions caused by a strike and a riot at two of its Chinese plants.

The incidents have again cast the spotlight on Foxconn, which shot to infamy in 2010 after a spate of bizarre workers' suicides, workplace accidents and accusations of suspect labour practices.

So what accounts for Foxconn's problems?

Observers told The Straits Times that one key reason that Foxconn's labour woes are not abating could be its sheer size.

It hires 1.2 million workers in China, who toil away at more than 10 factories in various cities such as Shenzhen, Zhengzhou and Taiyuan.

Said Renmin University labour expert Liu Erduo: "As it is the biggest employer and the world's largest contract manufacturer, it is natural that the spotlight will fall on it."

Another factor is Foxconn's unique practice of housing large numbers of workers in dormitories near factories so they can be rushed to work for urgent orders.

Some of its "factory towns" have up to 200,000 workers and feature facilities like canteens, hospitals and fire stations.

Said Liu: "With large numbers of workers living together in one place, it is easier for tensions to arise and workers to mobilise themselves."

Dreadful living conditions also fuel discontent among workers, according to a recent report by the Shanghai Evening Post, whose reporter spent 10 days working undercover at Foxconn's plant in Shanxi province's Taiyuan city.

The reporter wrote: "The first night sleeping at the dormitory was a nightmare. The dormitory smelt like garbage when I walked in. It's like a mix of overnight garbage smell with that of sweat and foam."

The tensions could also be due to the security apparatus at its factories, which is known to treat workers harshly, said Geoffrey Crothall, research director at the China Labour Bulletin, a labour rights group based in Hong Kong.

He said another of Foxconn's challenges lies with the younger workers, who are more informed and vocal about their rights.

It explains why Foxconn is hogging headlines now, though it has seen its fair share of labour woes since it set foot in China in 1988.

Said Crothall: "The younger-generation workers are more aware of their rights and more willing to demand fair and decent pay and working conditions than their parents' generation."

To be fair, Foxconn is not the only bad apple among China's factories, say observers.

Based on CLB figures, Foxconn accounted for fewer than 10 out of a total of 206 strikes reported at Chinese manufacturers since January last year.

Foxconn has complained that it is being scrutinised unfairly due to its work with Apple, arguably the world's most famous consumer electronics company.

Sydney-based analyst Anita Chan refutes such claims, saying: "When workers protest and riot, they do not do so to single out Foxconn. When the scale is big, of course the incidents get into the news."

Also, China Labour Watch founder Li Qiang believes the spotlight on Foxconn is necessary, in order to improve the lot of China's lowly paid and poorly treated factory workers.

He said: "I don't think it's unfair. Foxconn and Apple are the biggest companies in their fields. They should set an example and improve conditions for workers."

Agreeing, Liu said Foxconn has to improve its management of workers because there are no alternatives to its business model of using large amounts of low-cost labour to churn out massive orders.

"It can only try to be more humane towards workers," he added.


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