A few years ago, the multinational tech manufacturer Foxconn, a brand previously vaunted as a symbol of China’s 21st century industrial ascent, was marred by the image of miserable young factory workers flinging themselves off of buildings. So the company rolled into damage control mode with typical efficiency: Along with emergency suicide nets installed outside dormitories came a flurry of plans for morale-boosting, like deploying therapists, monks and “2,000 singers, dancers and gym trainers” to lift spirits. At a management-sponsored pep rally, some workers were spotted in “I Love Foxconn” shirts—positive thinking through casualwear.
And now, Foxconn is rewarding that love by introducing its young, sometimes rambunctious,occasionally suicidal workforce to the virtues of workplace democracy.
The company has announced that workers will be able to vote for union representatives at their factories. The plan, according to news reports, is to allow workers to elect “junior workers” to represent them in a union leadership structure historically dominated by management and officials. In a union system closely linked to the political establishment and employers, the goal, it seems, is to keep labor relations smooth as factories churn out their signature Apple product lines.
The scene of the cheery workers wearing their love for their company on their chests is a good backdrop for evaluating the voting reforms and other efforts to improve conditions at Foxconn. What’s really helping workers? And what’s simply polishing the Foxconn’s image? Following widespread media coverage of the cluster of suicides, Foxconn and Apple have engaged in a well-publicized auditing process and vowed to raise labor standards. But despite reports showing incremental improvements in the notoriously hyper-stressful factory conditions (as well as some persistent labor violations) many questions remain on whether these changes are really changing workers’ day-to-day lives or influencing global manufacturing standards as a whole.
Though the promise of a more direct election system at Foxconn (paralleling similar initiatives at other workplaces) suggests Foxconn is yielding to public and worker-driven pressure for a more responsive management structure, elections will not ensure equitable collective bargaining rights, and they are definitely no guarantee of genuine respect for workers’ fundamental freedom of association. Contrary to popular perceptions, many Chinese workplaces are nominally unionized, with millions of union members nationwide. The massive state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions is tasked with keeping labor roughly in line with neoliberal economic policies, though growing social unrest in recent years has heightened attention to workers’ issues in official political circles.
Historically, these official unions have acted as tools for management rather than channels for advocacy. According to a 2010 report by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, economic liberalization and whirlwind of privatization led to a transfer of union leadership from the official state to a state-friendly managerial class, and workers’ hardships and disenfranchisement persisted: