Inside Foxconn City: A Vast Electronics Factory Under Suicide Scrutiny

Discussion in 'International Politics' started by ajtr, Nov 20, 2010.

  1. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

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    Inside Foxconn City: A Vast Electronics Factory Under Suicide Scrutiny


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    Employees pass a security station before entering or leaving Foxconn City.

    Foxconn Technology Group is one of the world's largest electronics manufacturers. It makes hardware for a prestigious list of clients, including Apple, HP, Dell, Nokia and Nintendo.

    Yet its workers have compared it to a prison. Some say they're forced to work illegal overtime and night shifts, have been subjected to "corporal violence" and exposed to hazardous materials, and have their privacy invaded by management. And employees say they are still underpaid despite the promise of an across-the-board 30 percent raise earlier this year.

    Capping the list of woes at the Taiwanese manufacturer, Reuters reported earlier this month that a 23-year-old employee of Foxconn had jumped to his death. It was the 13th reported Foxconn employee suicide of the year.

    Foxconn has tried to manage perceptions where it can, if not actually confront the oddly tragic trend within the company. On Sept. 4, on assignment with Bloomberg Businessweek, photographer Thomas Lee joined other journalists on a tour of Foxconn City.

    Lee observed underused facilities, an eerily quiet workforce, an ever-ambitious chairman and the flow of migrants to long hours on the production lines. (Gizmodo's Joel Johnson recently made his own visit to Foxconn's dorms while on assignment for Wired.)

    "The security guard is younger than many of the workers, who actually walked in and out without being stopped," says Lee. "Most of the time he gave directions to people, which was helpful. Each employee has an ID card for scanning on entry and exit, so they are tracked in that manner."

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    A production-line employee.

    The facility known as Foxconn City has an estimated workforce of 420,000 employees, a number equivalent to the population of Oakland, California. Its official name is Lounghua Business Park. Located in the southern province of Szechuan, it is Foxconn's oldest and largest factory complex.

    In the first five months of this year, 12 Foxconn employees took their own lives at the industrial park. By May, under the scrutiny of the global media, Foxconn and its enigmatic chairman Terry Gou began taking practical steps to address the unprecedented spate of worker suicides: Workers' dormitory buildings were skirted with suicide nets, crisis hotlines were established, and wages increased — although in some locations barely to a living wage. The company also staged solidarity rallies for workers.

    Part of the Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision Industries, Foxconn ranks 112th among Global Fortune 500 Companies and employs nearly 1 million people within China. Dominant in a growing market, Foxconn forecasts its workforce will be 1.3 million by 2011. Foxconn manufactures some of the most sought-after electronic parts in the industry for a long list of corporate clients. Three of those clients — Apple, Dell and HP — began inquiries into the working conditions at Foxconn in May.

    "Most employees are migrants from rural communities," says photographer Thomas Lee, "coming to work in an economic zone, which is now a manufacturing hub, so there’s going to be a disconnection. It must feel a lot like study abroad; not being in one's home puts a strain on an individual. Are they clinically depressed? I don’t think so. Some of them like the challenge; they want to make it."

    "I am originally from Taiwan so I speak fluent Mandarin. I spoke with a few female employees. They said their wages were fair and that they have fantastic facilities. They also all believe the media doesn’t have the full story. There is a chance though that a memo went out telling the workforce that people from the media were on site."

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    Locker and security check point in the stairwell of a production facility in Foxconn City.

    Opponents of the Foxconn management regime say there is a link between stressful work conditions and the suicides.

    "They blame the suicides simply on psychological, mental or even individual issues," says Hu Douxing, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Technology in an interview with Al Jazeera. "But they [Foxconn] don't want to begin dealing with what the management is doing — workplace bullying and other problems."

    The suicide rate for China stands at 12 for every 100,000 people per year. With a workforce of 420,000 and 13 suicides this calendar year, the suicide rate at Foxconn is approximately one-quarter the national average. (It should also be noted that four other suicide attempts were made at Foxconn in 2010. The four employees survived with injuries.)

    "The constant monitoring was unnerving, but everything was well-organized," says photographer Thomas Lee. "There were obvious safety precautions in place and plenty of protective clothing. The place was like a hospital. The sterile environment only added to the unease at times."

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    A supervisor monitors Foxconn workers.

    The working conditions at Foxconn are similar to production line work environments in other Chinese factories. Photographer Thomas Lee observed that Foxconn has safer and cleaner facilities than those he's familiar with from other factories. Production line work has always been monotonous in China, and Foxconn is no different.

    Still, the suicides have brought to global attention the need for legitimate scrutiny of the treatment of workers in Chinese manufacturing plants.

    On Oct. 12, the Hong Kong–based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (.pdf) reported that "Researchers found that Foxconn continued to violate the law in terms of overtime payment and working hours."

    SACOM alleged employees weren't informed of pay raises, that overtime was expected but uncompensated, and that student interns employed as cheap labor accounted for 50 percent of the workforce in some departments.

    In a three-page statement, Foxconn "categorically rejected" SACOM's accusations (.pdf) of low pay, overtime abuse and hazardous work spaces. According to Foxconn, interns account for 7.6 percent of the workforce. The company says that figure has never risen above 15 percent, even during the summer when it employs many student interns.

    Foxconn and SACOM have staked out their positions. While Foxconn claims to adhere to all workplace laws, SACOM doesn't consider the laws the gauge by which corporations should measure themselves, but rather that corporations such as Foxconn should set their own higher standards.

    "China is a fast-growing economy; minimum legal standards as a safety net cannot guarantee decent living conditions in the cities," reported SACOM.

    On such a global scale, responsibility is a contested virtue. Along the supply chain are workers, supervisors, executive management, shareholders, clients and, last but not least, consumers. Lee's experience, shown here, is one more account to add to the pile of conflicting narratives about the reality for Foxconn's employees.
     
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  3. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

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    "There was a bunch of supervisors who watched closely," says Lee. "They would walk up and down the production line watching workers. They also paid close attention to what we shot. There was a videographer on the tour and they watched his LCD screen closely."

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    A production line worker.

    "We must talk about the consumer," says photographer Thomas Lee. "Dell products, the Sony PlayStation, the Nintendo Wii, Apple's iPod and iPad; these are the most popular electronic products and they're all made at Foxconn. Consumption of these is why Foxconn grew so large and I think it is why it lost its way. We can’t simply point fingers at Foxconn."

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    Foxconn employees' lockers.
    "[Outside of work] the workers spend a lot of time alone," says photographer Thomas Lee. "In the new dormitories, opened since the suicides, there are eight workers to a room, with a shared bathroom, a balcony and internet broadband. The rooms are air-conditioned."

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    The Foxconn security staff is briefed in public.

    "They did the security briefing in the open air," says photographer Thomas Lee. "It was a public show for the workers."

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    Trainees walk to classes under a poster of Terry Gou, chairman and president of Hon Hai and Foxconn, at the IT School/IE Academy in Foxconn City.

    "It’s like student orientation," says photographer Thomas Lee. "They get [information on] dos and don’ts, phone numbers, facilities. Foxconn may be evil, but they do have an Olympic sized pool and an internet cafe! They also have some of the highest wages for work of its type, which has caused problems for neighboring factories and cities."

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    Trainees walk on the balcony of Foxconn's IT School/IE Academy.

    "Foxconn doesn’t need to worry about acquiring new workers," says photographer Thomas Lee, "Even during the spate of suicides there were huge numbers for their recruitment. Hundreds line up to sign up and they keep coming."

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    "I didn’t see anyone chatting," says photographer Thomas Lee. "Most of the books are on business and economics, finance and engineering; books on how to be successful, the typical seven-step manuals. There are also biographies of Terry Gou, Foxconn CEO and spiritual leader for the workforce."

    "They all look for tips on how to be successful. Things at Foxconn are very competitive. Employees wonder, 'How do I go from being a production worker to a supervisor to a manger?' Everyone is conjuring his or her own agenda."
     
  4. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

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    An employee sits on the floor in the computer cafe among very low cubicle partitions.

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    An employee plays free X-Box games at the Cyberfox internet cafe.

    "The internet cafe was telling," says photographer Thomas Lee. "It was being used but usually you expect chatting, talk about movies or games; they’re supposed to be a relaxed place but the human interactions were missing. This became a theme for all my images."

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    An Olympic-size pool sits idle behind safety fencing near the new male dormitory in Foxconn City.

    "The Foxconn spin [on the empty pool] was that it was an overcast day and that the workers didn’t feel like using it," says photographer Thomas Lee. "But it was a Saturday. I just think people rarely use it. They walk around it as if it were a pond. Both times I passed by, it was empty."

    "This is indicative of the narrative Foxconn uses – they want to say that they provide recreation facilities for the workers, but the pool is unwelcoming. It seems to me like it’s a narrow view of — and shallow attempt to — care. Foxconn puts the ball in the workers’ hands. The vacant pool reinforces the overall sense on the campus of management."

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    Recently installed suicide nets encircle buildings inside Foxconn City.

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    Yellow safety netting surrounds the production facilities.

    "I didn’t expect these new nets to be so blatant," says Lee. "Yellow was a deliberate choice so they stand out. I think the authority there wanted to say, 'Hey look we’ve done something in response to the suicides, so now it’s on you [the worker] to not screw up.'”

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    Two operators await calls at the Foxconn Care Center hotline desk.

    "The caption on the wall behind says 'Love Care Respect,'" says Lee. "It is a typical Chinese delivery you can trace back to early Communism. The design of the adult and child hand touching is almost like Michelangelo’s ‘God Creates Man.'"

    "The hotline had space for six operators, but only four were there when I visited. The women weren’t talking to anyone. There were three private rooms in which one can see a certified counselor. There were "seven steps to well-being" pamphlets available. While I was there, there was no counseling and there was no one waiting. They were not working, but they look ready!"

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    Chairman Terry Gou addresses journalists at the product-testing facility.

    "Terry took the writers to his office and told them all about the future of Foxconn," says Lee. "He’s going inland, building factory complexes and taking the work to the workers. He’ll build the complexes like suburbs with condos; the workers will no longer be migrants. He thinks this will solve the problem of dissatisfaction and of suicides. He pored over the plans. He went over schedule by three hours."

    "He’s a tycoon and doesn’t have a good reputation, but he was very cooperative, [As a journalist] you can’t complain when the 'spiritual leader' gives over so much time."

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    Employees smoke near the main gate at the end of the day shift.

    "Smoking’s a time when you make dirty jokes, bitch about your boss, flirt, you know, but it’s not like that at Foxconn," says photographer Thomas Lee. "They hide in the bushes behind this container. They’re in the shadows and they smoke alone. There is no teasing or interaction. This is near the new east gate, right on the outskirts of the complex. During my whole day there I had no interaction with workers."
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    Crowds stream in and out of Foxconn City.

    "This was the only interaction I saw between two workers," says photographer Thomas Lee, "right at the end of the day and the end of their shift. It's a couple who are dating; he had his arm around her shoulder. I heard him say, 'Oh, the journalists are here again,' but they never stopped."

    "If I could go back to Foxconn City, I’d like to make more images to draw out the non-interaction across the whole site. I’d do more still lifes and landscapes. I’d look at the fire station and other elements I missed. I’d really bring out the sense of detachment."
     
  5. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

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  6. tony4562

    tony4562 Tihar Jail Banned

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    Foxconn workers typically earn around 2000 yuan/month (300$) with free accommodation and food, i don't think that's too bad for someone who only has a middle/high school diploma and no real-world skill and is on top of that coming from the under-privileged rural area of interior china. And no one is forcing them to work at FoxConn. In fact, when FoxConn opened a new factory in Henan, a poor but populous province in central china, right in midst of the suicide controversy couple months ago, people lined up the streets to apply for a job. That's the reality living in a nation with 1 billion+ people. From the pictures we can see that workers are dressed in clean modern cloths, and they also live and work in a quite clean environment, easily superior to the rural home they come from. Also a dozen or so suicides out of a population of 400000 is statistically insignificant , remember India has a suicide rate of 10.5 per 100000 people.

    Finally, I like to ask the folks here the following question: do the working class people in India fare any better than the FoxConn workers pictured above?
     

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