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Biting the rotten Apple: Taking on Foxconn

Jenny Chan talks about her campaigning with workers in China

August 23, 2012
5 min read

Jenny Chan is one of the principal researchers of a group of faculty and students drawn from 22 universities across China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, England and the US. They have joined forces to conduct independent investigations of the labour practices and production system at Apple supplier Foxconn’s factories in China in the wake of recent suicides and reports of corporate abuses. She is currently studying for a PhD in sociology and Chinese labour studies in London.

Tell us about the work you have been doing with Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM)?

When I was studying at the University of Hong Kong, I volunteered for SACOM – a non-profit NGO which originated from a student movement devoted to improving the working conditions of cleaners and security officers. We organised the ‘Looking for Mickey Mouse’s Conscience’ campaign before the grand opening of Hong Kong Disneyland, exposing the worker injuries and rights violation problems at the toy factories supplying Disney in industrial towns in south China.

Over the past seven years, we have aimed to bring together concerned students, scholars, labour activists and consumers to monitor corporate behaviour and to advocate for workers’ rights.

What difficulties are involved in researching labour conditions at Foxconn? How do you collect your data?

Understanding Foxconn’s 1.3 million workers’ conditions requires us to see through the power dynamics of the global electronic supply chain.

Excessive overtime, low wages and high pressure on the factory floor are linked to the unethical ordering practices of Apple, Foxconn’s biggest buyer (40 per cent of Foxconn’s business is from Apple) and other multinationals. Apple is known for its secretive culture, so our access to key data remains very limited.

But through surveys and interviews, eventually we came to learn more about the specifics of the supply chain and the transfer of production pressure onto the frontline workers. Everywhere we go – to Foxconn factory workers’ dormitories, internet cafés, basketball courts and food stalls – we meet with workers. Most of them are very willing to share with us – university student activists – their dreams and anxieties about their future.

Following the Apple scandal, which broke earlier this year, the poor working conditions in Foxconn plants are quite well known. How much anger is there among the workforce, or are people just pleased to have employment?

On 28 March 2012, Apple CEO Tim Cook toured the iPhone factory in Henan province, where Foxconn workers had spent hours cleaning up beforehand. Snapshots of the pre-announced factory audit were staged, with the number of toxins reduced before the visits and workers temporarily reassigned to safer tasks. Workers sent out messages through mobile phones and micro-blogs to vent their anger towards both Foxconn and Apple.

A new generation of Chinese workers is reclaiming their limited living space and time to create and re-mix culturally diversified social struggles, through slogans, songs, poems and protests such as strikes and threats of ‘mass suicides’.

By turning their collective dormitories into communal spaces, they open up new opportunities for labour resistance. Rights awareness is heightened through labour law information sharing via word of mouth and new technologies. Unfortunately, workers’ actions have invariably incited an even stronger disciplinary regime.

Have the recent scandals led to Apple sacrificing profits to pay workers better, or is the pressure still on the supply chain?

For the global brands, the subcontracting arrangement is ideal: they reap the benefits of low-wage, high-intensity labour without accepting direct responsibility for the consequences. Foxconn workers say that after the ‘wage hike’ that followed the wave of suicides in 2010, Foxconn hiked production quotas, demanding both greater labour intensity and in some cases longer hours. A ‘normal’ working day lasted 12 hours. Meanwhile, workers on the line faced relentless speedup. In July 2010, for example, the iPhone casing production quota was raised by 20 per cent to 6,400 pieces per day. Many workers were pressed to the point of desperation.

What potential do you see for a Chinese labour movement to improve conditions?

This new generation of Chinese workers is better educated, more aware of workplace rights and more likely to demand employment protection and decent work. They pierce through the hypocrisy of the global corporate image of ‘care’, behind which companies’ ordering practices go against everything they promise in their labour and environmental standards programs.

What can people in the UK do about these issues?

Conditions can only change if Apple, Foxconn and other leading IT firms are forced to change by some combination of public pressure in the countries where its products are sold and worker protest in the countries where they are made. Direct pressure should put on Apple to ensure workers in its supply chain have a living wage, safe and healthy work environment, and above all, respect and dignity.

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