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A More Democratic Foxconn? No One Told the Workers

12:52 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

SACOM Apple protest, Hong Kong (Lennon Ying-Dah Wong via flickr / creative commons)

With a workforce of more than one million, the electronics giant Foxconn has enough workers in its Chinese factories to fill a small country. So it’s fitting that the company has vowed to make its manufacturing kingdom a bit more democratic by encouraging union elections.

But although the company announced its push for union democracy in February, a subsequent study by academics in Hong Kong and mainland China reveals that many workers don’t even know whether they’re in a union, and many others don’t have a clear idea of what their union does or how it works. And that actually makes perfect sense, since China’s unions are ill-defined, bureaucratized institutions –politically ineffective by design.

The union plan is part of a host of promised reforms that followed public scrutiny of Foxconn’s premiere client, Apple. The Apple brand has come under fire from advocacy groups and the media for profiting from the exploitation of young Foxconn workers – underscored by a series of employee suicides stretching from 2010 to just a few weeks ago.

As Working In These Times noted when the plan was announced in February, the idea of “democratizing” unions at Foxconn should be viewed skeptically since official unions are linked to the state-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which tends to collude with employers in ignoring or suppressing autonomous labor action.

While labor movements in many regions, including the U.S. and Europe, face a tension between militant labor activism and “cooperative” union structures based on “partnership” with management, in a non-democratic nation like China, where unions are aligned with the government, activism and the official unions are fundamentally at odds. As many activists and reporters have pointed out, the most critical strikes and protests in recent years have been illegal and unsanctioned—many of them spontaneous wildcat strikes that sprung up out of frustration with management. Such unrest is precisely what the ACFTU is designed to pre-empt and contain, not foster. Read the rest of this entry →

Even With Daisey’s Lies Peeled Away, Apple’s Rotten Core Exposed

7:55 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Activists pass out literature detailing Apple's connection to Foxconn. (MakeITFair)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Apple’s brand glared in the media spotlight this past week, after the public learned that performance artist Mike Daisey’s theatrical rendering of the struggles of Apple factory workers contained false claims—painfully exposed on an episode of the radio program This American Life. But if one fundamental truth has emerged from the scandal surrounding Daisey’s dramatic fudging, it’s that the lived reality of many Chinese workers is undoubtedly bleak—no embellishment needed.

Daisey’s personal account is gratuitously peppered with fabrications, but the story of systematic exploitation is essentially true. For years various watchdog groups have tried to hold Apple accountable for harsh working conditions in China, which have been linked to workplace-related suicides and health hazards. Since a number of young workers killed themselves in 2010, the consumer advocacy campaign Make IT Fair, together with the Hong Kong-based Students Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), have documented systematic abuses: exhausting hours, an oppressive, militaristic workplace culture and, despite conciliatory pay hikes, extremely low wages in comparison to the tremendous corporate profits and brutal working conditions.

It should be noted, however, that Daisey’s “dramatic license” was debunked largely through the real findings of intrepid investigations by advocates and professional reporters, which some commentators have highlighted amid the media fallout. As part of its “Retraction” episode, in fact, TAL interviewed New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg about the real story behind Daisey’s fictions.

On the reported widespread violations of a 60-hour weekly cap on working hours, Duhigg tells host Ira Glass, Apple claims workers volunteer for this excess work:

Duhigg: They say, “Look, one of the reasons why there is so much overtime that’s inappropriate and, in some places, is illegal, is because the workers themselves are demanding that overtime.”

Now, workers don’t always say that. What workers often say is that they feel coerced into doing overtime, that if they didn’t do overtime when it’s asked of them, that they wouldn’t get any overtime at all, and that financially they would suffer as a result.

This is the kind of more nuanced, day-to-day exploitation that Foxconn workers face–not so sensational, but nonetheless driven by global economic forces. Read the rest of this entry →