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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace


20