Of Strikes and Suicides

BY LANG YAN
Jul 25, 2010

Recent events at Foxconn and Honda have turned the spotlight on China’s workers. Is the era of cheap Chinese labour coming to an end?

 

While I was walking around the Shanghai World Expo on a weekday a couple of weeks ago, I met a group of workers from a nearby clothing sweat shop. Their company had sent them to the Expo for the day (for which they had to trade their only day off, Sunday). They were too tired to enjoy the Expo as they worked 14 hours a day, six days a week.

While this may seem like a nice gesture on the part of the company, the workers also explained that the company was moving much of their production to another building that week, because a worker burned much of the factory down after not being paid on time. I heard this story just as the news of the Foxconn suicides began to break into the media and shortly after that the Honda strike began.

Within public discussion, the Honda wildcat strike has transformed the meaning of the Foxconn suicides. Early interpretations of the Foxconn suicides tended to argue that the suicides should either be understood as individual psychological issues and as copycat suicides, on the one hand; or a result of the particularly brutal and alienating conditions at Foxconn, on the other.

 

Foxconn: an anomaly?

Some marshalled statistics to show that there were no more suicides at Foxconn than the social average when one considers the size of Foxconn (for example, see Tom Holland “Why there’s less to the suicides at Foxconn than meets the eye” and Michael R. Phillips “Foxconn and China’s Suicide Puzzle Workers: may not be taking their own lives for the reasons everyone thinks”).

Statistics average out, in other words, the social difference of the militarized factory space; Foxconn was treated as a normal social space, a city. (For a discussion of suicide rates and Foxconn, see EastSouthWestNorth #19. Notable also is that the Chinese rate of suicide for people aged 15 to 34 is quite high. See Suicide main cause of death in 15 to 34-year-olds.)

Analysis of the social and work conditions at Foxconn also appeared. The particularly militarized and alienating work environment at Foxconn is a result of capital’s relentless drive to lower assembly costs; reform-era China and the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) have been a willing partner in that effort.

Activists and scholars have argued that Foxconn is one of the worst factories in terms of its labour regime, with a very long (usually about 70 hours) work week (since the pay structure means that workers must work a lot of overtime) and a very rapid assembly line. Foxconn was able to become the world’s largest assembly company exactly because of its harsh Taylorist production process, which cuts up the process into highly regimented movements, its ability to intensify labour exploitation and its repressive management style (See this article by Andy Xie for some analysis and background on the Taiwanese management style). There are reports that Foxconn initially responded to the suicides by pushing workers to sign contracts that they would not commit suicide, and stating that their families would not receive compensation if they did.

 

 

Part of the masses: assembly lines in a China factory

Part of the masses: assembly lines in a China factory

Photo credit: Masters of Media, Universiteit Van Amsterdam


The Honda wildcat

But the successful Honda wildcat has changed the discussion. The suicides and the strike are being put into the context of changing labour relations in China, with many now arguing that Chinese labour is at a turning point.

For example, NPR’s Marketplace (Honda, Foxconn workers demand more power) argues that a “labour shortage in China is empowering workers to demand better wages and treatment at their workplaces….” In a discussion of the Honda strike, Reuters notes that “[s]ome other foreign companies have begun to address workers’ discontent over pay and working conditions. Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd for instance plans to raise salaries by about a fifth at its Foxconn International unit, maker of Apple Inc’s iPhone, as it struggles to stop a spate of suicides and quell public anger.” Foxconn has said that it will raise base salaries by 30% now with more raises to come in the near future. Clearly this wasn’t only caused by the suicides, however. Foxconn was planning a salary increase earlier in the year in response to the difficulty hiring workers due to labour shortages.

The Honda strike (workers’ demands included wage increases from about 1,500 yuan (less than $220 US) to about 2,300 yuan ($337 US) for higher-paid workers) is likewise getting more press than any other worker action in recent years.