Some truth amid the fiction about Shenzhen's Apple factory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2012, 12:00am


Last month, This American Life, a popular public radio programme in the United States, retracted an episode after discovering the source material - portions of an off-Broadway show about alleged sweatshop conditions at Shenzhen's Foxconn plant - contained 'significant fabrications'.

The show, performed by monologist Mike Daisey and called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, pulled the blinders over several American media outlets.

The New York Times retracted a paragraph in a contributed piece written by Daisey, who purported to have met a man whose hand had been mangled while making iPads. The paragraph was pulled from the newspaper's online version because the encounter was fabricated.

About two weeks later, on March 29, the Fair Labour Association (FLA), an international organisation headquartered in Washington, published its initial report on the working conditions inside Foxconn's factories, saying the plants were not sweatshops - although it did point out many problems regarding Foxconn's working conditions.

As news about the fabrications and related reports were translated into Chinese, they quickly spread, and suddenly many people believed that all previous allegations and stories about Foxconn were false. The Guangzhou Daily, for example, ran a headline saying: 'Foxconn as sweatshop is fake news, well-known American media all disgraced'.

But the mainland media might have taken it too far. The FLA, for example, pointed out many problems in Foxconn, such as excessive overtime, insufficient compensation, health and safety risks, and crucial communication gaps between workers and management.

What the FLA left out of its report, though, is Foxconn's quasi- militaristic management style, which many Chinese media have covered, not to mention the sense of alienation that workers reportedly experience there.

Workers are not allowed to talk during work. If they are found dozing off during their shifts, their bonuses are deducted and they are forced to criticise themselves in front of others.

And if they speak too softly in their self-criticism, they are scolded, the Guangzhou Daily quoted two former Foxconn workers as saying in 2010, after eight of their fellow workers committed suicide within six months.

'Management would deliberately cause mistakes on the assembly line,' one worker said. 'For instance, they would take away a semi-finished product while you are concentrating on your work. If you don't find it, you are punished.'

They also said the strict hierarchy between regular workers and management, coupled with a sense of alienation, was demoralising.

'Their main management method is to scold,' said one worker.

Additionally, it's hard for workers to form relationships among co-workers, as the staff turnover is so high. And the workers said that, even among those who work in the same units, they are strangers to each other, as they aren't allowed to talk, and they all wear masks.

The trade unions of Foxconn and Shenzhen have seldom conducted independent investigations into the company or pushed for more rights among workers.

An investigation into Foxconn by university students from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, published on March 30, found that no substantial improvements had been made following the suicides in 2010, although some remedial measures were taken.

Still, about 84 per cent of surveyed workers said they hadn't joined the trade union, and 36 per cent said they didn't even know whether the factory had a union. The report said the trade union served practically no function.

The report said: 'The production system and management style are very harsh. Workers are regarded as machines, and their health and self-respect are harmed.'

When the trade unions do not function as well as they should, outside professionals and the public must step in, show concern for the workers and better monitor the situation.

A Foxconn spokesman refused to comment on individual cases but said the company's management policies and practices 'seek to ensure that our workers are treated with respect and we do not tolerate any infractions of these policies'.

It also said the company was committed to addressing issues identified by the FLA and had presented a detailed action plan to enhance workers' participation in committees and other union structures. The company will continue to implement this plan over the coming months.

As is often pointed out, Foxconn is still a far better employer than many manufacturers on the mainland. But through closer monitoring, which would force Foxconn to address its labour-rights violations, the company could become a strong example for others to follow.