Not everybody is having the time of their life. This week, a 19-year-old worker at the Foxconn electronics plant near the sprawling factory city of Shenzhen in southern China became the fourth employee in two weeks, and the ninth this year, to leap to his death. Two more failed in the attempt. The spate of suicides, coupled with an undercover investigation into conditions at the Foxconn plant by Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou-based newspaper, has shone a spotlight into the darker crevices of China’s factory system. Last week, nine professors of social science wrote an open letter to Foxconn in which they questioned the very sustainability of China’s role as the workshop of the world.
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Few people have heard of Foxconn, in spite of the fact that the Taiwanese company employs an army of 300,000 workers at the Longhua plant where the suicides occurred. But most have heard of Apple’s iPad, just one of dozens of electronic devices churned out by Foxconn staff. They also know about Sony, Dell and Nokia, some of the companies whose game consoles, digital cameras, mobile phones and computers are assembled by the company under contract. Foxconn workers – who earn roughly $75 for a 60-hour week – are well acquainted with these brands, though few, if any, can afford them.
The Southern Weekly sent a 22-year-old reporter undercover to work at the Foxconn plant just north of Shenzhen, the city conjured into life by Deng Xiaoping, whose 1992 southern tour declared China open for international business. In addition to the factory floors, where many employees – wearing identical white coats and white caps – sit or stand at their workstations for 12-hour shifts, the city-sized complex has dormitories, shops, restaurants and even its own fire brigade. Now it has a suicide hotline. Southern Weekly’s reporter found staff dulled by the monotony of repetitive tasks, even walking and eating to the rhythm of the rumbling machines.
Factory Girls, Leslie Chang’s brilliantly reported book about female migrants, also makes grim reading at times. Many factories treat their employees as fodder, refusing to employ people because they are too short, too ugly, too old – 30 is over-the-hill – or simply come from the “wrong” province. They rush through orders, even if that means workers are not properly trained on machines that can – and sometimes do – slice off a finger. They demand employees work long hours, though most are only too happy to do so because of the overtime pay they receive. They often keep back a month of pay, lest their workers find a boyfriend, or a better job, in another factory.
But that is not the entire story. Some 200m migrants have left the countryside in search of a better life. They cannot all be deluded. In the specific case of Foxconn, it is true that the recent spate of suicides marks a sharp rise from last year. But given the plant employs 300,000 – and assuming reported numbers are accurate – suicide rates are significantly lower than outside the factory. China has a particularly high suicide rate for women.
More generally, average wages have been outstripping inflation for years and working conditions have been improving. In 2008, southern Guangdong province, of which Shenzhen is a special zone, began a campaign to weed out shoddier plants, forcing the closure of half its toy factories. (Many moved inland to poorer provinces.) In March, Guangdong became the latest to raise the minimum wage, by 20 per cent. In theory, though probably not in practice, that could alleviate the pressure to work endless overtime.
Labour activists would argue, with some justification, that these are incremental improvements from a Dickensian base. But one side of the migrant experience that emerges very strongly from Ms Chang’s book is a sense of prevailing optimism in the possibility of upward mobility. Recent waves of migrants have grander ambitions than those who came before them. Many flit from job to job, continually searching for something better, or putting their savings into property and start-up ventures (or pyramid schemes).
To be sure, that sense of possibility is double-edged. Migrants often get cut by reality. Internet chat also suggests there is growing anger at the perception that much personal wealth is the fruit of corruption, not hard work. Nevertheless, research suggests that a belief in the Chinese dream of upward mobility is still alive. In Myth of the Social Volcano, a book based on extensive polling, Martin King Whyte, professor of sociology at Harvard University, found “an optimistic expectation that the rising tide of economic development is lifting all boats”. Chinese people showed a faith in their ability to improve their own lives often surpassing respondents in capitalist countries, including the US. That sense of possibility – still generously lubricated with double-digit growth – suggests factories will retain their allure for some time yet.