Factory workers need a fairer share of labour's spoils

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2012, 2:49am


Going by the large numbers, a riot at a Foxconn factory can seem more like crowd violence at a football match. That's not surprising. The Taiwanese electronics company that makes Apple gadgets employs about one million assembly-line workers - some 79,000 of them at a mainland plant forced to close recently because of rioting. A brawl between opposing camps of workers at Taiyuan, Shanxi , got out of control, eventually involving thousands of rioters and spectators and 5,000 police reinforcements. The 40 casualties included three who were badly injured.

Foxconn Technology Group says the riot was triggered by personal, not work, issues. The company also said that when 10 people committed suicide within five months in 2010. Several more tried to kill themselves at two large factories in Shenzhen until the company began addressing wider issues with a 30 per cent pay rise. Officials quoted by Xinhua said the most recent riot followed a clash between workers from Shandong and Henan . Unofficial versions blamed a security guard who beat up a worker, and drunken workers who tried to force their way into a dormitory.

The riot may not have been directly related to work. But given the conditions of factory labour on the mainland, it would be unrealistic for the company or the authorities to think it was not indirectly related. It came amid a series of violent protests by workers over grievances about pay and working conditions.

Factory workers are at the bottom of the labour pile, earning the least and typically working more than 12 hours a day. This leaves them little time for social interaction - or to enjoy the modern recreational facilities provided by Foxconn in Shenzhen. Most are poor migrants separated from their families who live in cramped dormitories on company premises and are denied basic social services. Competition for labour can improve their lot but their rights are easily eroded. A spontaneous riot, or one about a single issue, can be a release valve for pent-up grievances or another agenda. The authorities were aware of that when they reined in anti-Japan protests.

Factory conditions, and China's dependence on cheap exports, are unlikely to change overnight. But violent unrest at such a big employer as Foxconn should be a reminder that if China's rise is to serve the goals of stability and harmony, the workers who toil to make products for the world must be able to look forward to a fairer share of the spoils and a better life.