Friday, 4 June 2010

Factory Working

The press coverage of the worker suicides at Foxconn is throwing open the debate on China’s challenges as it seeks to continue its economic miracle. If you have not followed the events, last week was the eleventh time this year that one of its workers , at its factory in Shenzhen, committed suicide by jumping from his dormitory. Li Hai was only 19 years old and had worked only 42 days in the factory before he died.

Foxconn is a giant electronics assembling company. Taiwanese owned, its largest factory is in Shenzhen in China. The Shenzhen plant assembles phones for Apple, Nokia, etc etc. It is typical of the industrial might of China – the factory employs some 400,000 workers at its site in Shenzhen and they all live in the factory premises in large dormitories.Its a virtual city by itself. This is the model in China. Migrant workers come from the west to the coastal cities to work and factory complexes are in effect self contained townships. Foxconn is not typical – its huge. Most other factories in the Shenzhen belt are smaller, but the model is essentially the same.

The knee jerk reaction in the press was that the suicides were symptomatic of labour abuse in Chinese factories. But its not as pat as that, I believe. The situation is far more complex.

In the early days of China’s industrial boom, the situation at factories was appalling. Conditions were unsafe, often fatally unsafe, working conditions were horrible, physical abuse was rampant – every horror of modern industrial life, and more, was widely prevalent. But things have changed. Safety is much better. Handling poisons or being forced to inhale toxic fumes is rarer. Wages have risen. Of course there are abuses, but they are not as vicious as they were before,

But it’s a tough tough life for a factory worker. Foxconn was actually one of the better employers. Conditions were not unsafe. But it was boring monotonous work and the pressure was always high. Wages are dependent on productivity and the typical worker mindset is to make the maximum money possible. Even though official working hours are long, employees actually seek out employers who would allow them to earn overtime by working seven days a week.

Wages are low, sure, but have risen from what they used to be. The whole economic model is based on low wages. If wages rise, factories like Foxconn won’t exist. And compared to the alternative of farming in the fields, the earning potential is manifold higher – that’s why 200 million people have left the villages and come to the city for work.

It’s a profound social problem that China faces as the first sheen of economic development wears off for the migrant worker. The migrant worker is the unsung hero of China. She (most factories prefer women) has left her family and lives alone in a strange place where she can’t even speak the local dialect. She works incredibly hard. If she’s married and has a kid, she’s left the kid back with her parents and might see the child only once a year or so. The work is boring, tough, and totally insecure – there’s no such thing as permanency and attrition rates are usually 50% in the factories. At first, the allure of wealth, which could not even be dreamt of in the village, masked everything else. But then, as time goes by, the thorns come out. Its not all that rosy.

Something exactly like this happened just after the Industrial revolution in Britain. Its happening again in China.

I strongly recommend a superb book – Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang. It opens your eyes to the good, the bad and the ugly of the factory world of China. There’s both the good and the bad – in real life the answers are not so simple. It’s a complex and tough world out there.


Anonymous said...

400,000!!! WOW

I had no idea, that is the size of an average American city.

Certainly there are a lot of factors going on. I'm just really getting clued into the whole hukou system. The system that doesn't allow the migrant workers the same benefits in the factory towns that the long term residents get. I could see the official argument of needing the system in place to prevent mass migration, except, 400,000!! I think its quite clear that the only way they can fill that many slots is WITH the mass migration, not by preventing it, so I am not buying the official party line.

Who knows the real root of the suicides. Heck, when I see 400,000, its starting to seem like a normal rate.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many iPhone (in the West) users realize the conditions under which a worker has worked to make that gadget with apps. Your post is a great eye opener. It is indeed sad that workers are pushed to a point of no return. No pun intended.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Deepa said...

A very poignant post! Financial insecurity/aspirations can make people go to what extent. More than physical working conditions, its the delusion of a better life which drives one up the wall.

Whats indeed disturbing that suicide rates have become statistics like birth rate/ death rate. And supposedly, Foxconn's suicide rates are below industry average!

Reminds me of a quote from Jerry Sienfield."Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains, a pretty violent image there. I think if you've got a T-shirt with
a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn't your biggest problem..."

Deepa said...

Some reader on NY times left a very interesting comment, "socialism, capitalism...same product, different packaging". It eventually does have the same end, even if routes are different.

zeno said...

I was expecting[tempted to request] a post on this, but felt you may not do it from the land of net nanny!

Interesting to read a real time report from the ground![also felt it was pro corporate, was it?]

Read somewhere, even suicides are contagious and viral!
This could also be a probable reason.

In terms of the industrial average or any other average, it might be low. Still, when you think it is happening on the same factory, the management definitely has to do something about it. The blood[body] is on their hands. Interestingly their partners are too concerned about this phenomena!

More potshots/digs can be seen at

RamMmm said...

The 'Angaadi Theru' of China, if someone makes a movie out of this.

Durga said...

The factory life in China is appalling indeed. Guess the same hold goods in the Gulf countries where you have Indian workers doing manual labor there with dreamy eyes of money. No one back home knows the amount they need to toil and the extremities they face there that leads them to earn that money. Same story, different country.

sandhya sriram said...

a very touching post ramesh!!

in factory, there is this norm that an x amount of hours of OT only is permissible. Sometimes, when you have a lil bit of stress on work and you want a staff to stretch a lil more, the HR team would put its foot down and say a "No". initially i used to feel that if the cost is not too high and the employee is ok, now why these unnecessary hurdles. but later realized that yes a line has to be drawn at some place. (ofcourse there is an other side to this story which you know as well - but i am parking that perspective for the time being).

behind the success stories of China there lies a subtle story of exploitation, pain, depression and love to one's family which drives people to crazy heights.

Maybe, eventually it will strike a balance, not where US is, but better than where China is today, but a long a drawn journey it seems

this leaves a gulp in the throat tonight and will probably linger on for sometime.

gils said...

??!! before i type anyfurther me not supporting these suicides or the labour ways of chinese govt..but y the heck its always the asian countries..esp india,china,phillipines get downlighted with stories like this?!! the so called developed countries would also have similar trash..but wen it comes to these developing countries..its shown as if its the norm here!! saying all tht..u need not even look beyond ur household to see this many of us pay a decent salary to the housemaids? how many bother to chk the kids in kaayalaan kadais whether they goto school? tho it irritates to see news like this..its high time to do house clean i guess.

Anonymous said...

I guarantee if there were a string of suicides at an American factory like this, it would be getting just as much, if not more, media attention.

ambulisamma said...

In places like tirupur,its the same as in China.

Sandhya Sriram said...

Another painful link ... same story - different voices.

Anonymous said...

Well, I am intrigued by Gils' comment and have actually observed here (US) that not everything is hunky dory but is under the wraps.

Not suicides in the factory, but they do have their own issues about crime and local security, but people prefer not to talk about them.

But yes, as Gils said, we need some cleaning up to do in our own homes!


gils said...

exploitationgarathu.. as a concept has been prevalent from the times of stone age illaya?..domestication of animalsgara conceptay enna keta exploitation thaan. when it happens within humans its seen as something bad. obviously..namma inamgara pheelings :) powerla irukaravan pakoda saapdraan. ilaathavan kushtapadran. when he comes to power he wl repeat the same thing for sure :) aduthavan senja thappu..naama senja rite :) ennnnnaaa koduma saaar ithu :) haiyaa...unga topiclenthu digress aagi kathiaya maathiten...kelviku badil therilaina ethayachum answera ezhuthi papera fill panra technika naanga enga venumnaalum follow panuvomla ;D

Connecter said...

When I read this post, I really appreciate India since it is far more organized on this front when compared to China (still there are cases of exploitation exists). I really wonder what our communist colleagues thinking of China. Do they really have a stand on such issues or they just focus on India politics limited to WB, Kerala & Tirupa....

Ramesh said...

@Hopfrog - Wow indeed, although this size isn't typical. Most factories are smaller, but the model is similar as you know. Yes the hukous system is a massive problem, but the Chinese are changing that slowly.

@Blogueur - It isn't all that bad . Buy Western worker standards it may seem bad, but its a great livelihood for the people here. The problem is that its boring monotonous, extremely hard work. The perils of the industrial revolution, felt all over again

@Deepa - yes indeed. If you are faced with a choice between poverty and extremely tough but paying work, what would you take. The Chinese clearly have taken to working. Foxconn gets some tens of thousands of people applying to it every week.

@Zeno _ I haven't been critical; so the nanny would pardon me. I really think its a complex social issue and its not a pat worker exploitation story that some in the media love to portray it as.

Ramesh said...

@RamMmm - Yes, every country has an equivalent story. Its a hard life

@Durga - Its not a one sided story of applling exploitation. Its all a question of perspective. To us, whom God has been kinder, it sounds like torturous work. The migrant worker, who has lifted herself out of poverty by working hard, it looks like a great opportunity. This is why I am recommending the book Factory Girls - the characters in that book wouldn't trade this for anything !

@gils - As Hopfrog syas, sopmething like this will be highlighted anywhere. But this is not all a negative story - thats my point. It highlights the dangers of the path China is taking, but there are many sides to this coin as I have been arguing.

@ambulisamma - Yes; every country has its equivalent.

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - You've captured the dilemma beautifully. I maintain that the route China has taken is far far better than sitting on your backside and agitating for "rights" and "privileges" for the downtrodden that our home grown Communists have done.

@Connecter - Welcome to the blog and thanks for your comment. I am not sure India is better organised - exacrtly the same thing happens equally in India as I think.

vishal said...

That was a very balanced post, Ramesh, you have brought out the reasons of this appalling situation so well. Feel sorry for the factory workers @ China.

I admire the fact that China has taken the route of hard work and sacrifice. Somehow, I feel that suicidal cases are common across geographies owing to local social problems. It seems the same story here also. Just because this has been more frequent, there has been a host of reactions. Though, this does raise a few worry as far as China's revolution is concerned, I sincerely hope that a clear balance in the affairs would be definitely achieved in due course of time as Sandhya says!

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