Greg Autry

The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise – Tacitus.

Foxconn and The Fruit of Evil

Apple has been running for cover from harsh criticism of labor conditions at the controversial “Foxconn City” (Hon Hai Precision) assembly plant in Shenzhen, China. Basically all of Apple’s products are made at this giant factory and at another Foxconn facility in Chengdu. Suicides at that facility and reports of underage and over-worked assemblers have driven the California firm to publicize compliance audits and recently announce third party audits. The issue has grown to the point where Nightline is running special report on the subject. All of this misses the point that Apple’s real problem is not Foxconn, Apple’s problem is China.

Foxconn City isn’t quite the “Fear Factory” featured on The Daily Show.
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I’ve been inside, and frankly it is the best factory I have ever seen in China. It’s clean and well organized. The workers are well fed and housed. Their physical working and living conditions are not the Dickensian ones so common in modern China. That said, I don’t doubt there are under-aged workers there or that the staff is pushed into long shifts to meet the punishing demands of American consumers hell bent on getting even more stuff for even less next Black Friday.

However, the “suicide nets” are all too real.
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Every building from dormitory to snack shop to factory is festooned with the ubiquitous webs designed to catch plummeting Foxconn employees. After sitting in the Hon Hai executive conference room and listening to presentations from the corporate responsibility folks and reviewing reports from psychologists on the suicides, I believe these managers were genuinely concerned. Obviously, no firm wants trained workers killing themselves and yet it has happened there with frightening regularity. Why, If this is the nicest factory in China, are those ghoulish nets required?

Well firstly, there is the standard modern Chinese workload: twelve plus hours a day, six or seven days a week, fifty or fifty-one weeks per year. This isn’t some extreme Foxconn or Apple standard, this is normality for China’s workers. If they didn’t like it and organized a labor action or union, the police would beat them into submission. If they publicly protested or editorialized against such treatment they’d be jailed or much worse. That’s not Foxconn or Apple, that’s just how communist China rolls.

Then there are the living arrangements.
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The dorms at Foxconn are a bit crowded, but they are in modern high-rise structures that resemble American apartment complexes — albeit with four to eight men or women jammed into 10ft. x15ft. rooms.

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There are even swimming pools and gyms, though I saw no one in these facilities and they were so pristine it looked as if nobody has much time to. That’s still way sweet by Chinese standards.

So why the suicides?
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The answer that is so elusive for the Foxconn psychologists was starkly obvious to me. These nifty dorms are sex segregated. When I asked the delicate question of “what if a man and women wish to spend sometime together” the immediate response was “That is not allowed!” To put it bluntly, in China an employer can decide that 150,000+ 17 to 25 year olds will not be able to act on their most fundamental natural desires in a situation where marriage is nearly impossible to obtain or maintain. Again, this is not Foxconn or Apple, this is a broken national culture that has replaced Chinese tradition and all human decency with a twisted form of Communism.

This is a system where the “one child” policy denies reproductive rights to more than six hundred million women. It is a system that rips young people away from their families and customary social structures and ships them like chattel to factories thousands of miles away to better serve Beijing’s engine of state capitalism. It is a system that massively pollutes China’s environment in order to steal jobs from American workers and grab market share from American firms. It is a system that funds the largest military build up of a totalitarian regime since the 1930s.

This systemic Chinese problem that cannot be fixed by investigating, auditing, or even opening up Foxconn, or any other Chinese factory. Apple can never be compliant with any objective standard of social responsibility as long as it chooses to be dependent on the politically repressed labor of totalitarian dictatorship. Of course, this wasn’t a problem when Apple both designed and made its wares in California.

- Greg Autry teaches Macroeconomics at the Merage School of Business, UC Irvine and is co-author (with Peter Navarro) of “Death by China” www.gregautry.us and serves as senior economist for the American Jobs Alliance.

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1. Sumanth - August 4, 2012

This is a good comment. The facts, I would say, are dead on. However, as I sgugested above, I think that we could put a sharper edge on the comments on environmental pollution and awareness, as well as the prospects for change, by considering more carefully matters of status and class. First, pollution is a massive problem in China that affects all residents, but it is important to recognize that there is an internal economy of exposure to pollution. This fact is, I think, implicit in Sascha’s comments about villages and their rivers. No one is overly impressed with Beijing’s waterways, but they are not garbage dumps. Here we see evidence of perhaps the most important class divide in China, i.e., the rural-urban divide. Of course this divide is reproduced even within Beijing when one moves from the relatively pristine waters of the old city to the counties cum districts like Changping in the north.Second, the focus on Beijing in both the Chinese national and foreign press (and blogosphere, of course) disguises something that many commenters here are well aware of: that pollution situation in Beijing is not so bad compared to many provincial capitals and smaller municipalities around the country. Not so bad being not so good merely underlines the serious problem residents of China deal with every day. Access to a (relatively) clean environment also runs along an axis defined by China’s tiered cities.Third, with regard to the potential role of a worried middle class to improve the situation, well, that remains to be seen. My own take is that the optimism people feel about the rise of the middle class as a political force has more to do with projecting a faulty ideological history of the democratization of the West onto a country with its own peculiar history and conditions. Put simply, there are just as many reasons to be pessimistic about the development of an activist middle class as there are reasons to think their on line tweets are evidence of an uprising in the making. In terms of the capacity and resources for critique of the government, China’s peasant/rural and working class are not the dupes they are usually taken for. Have a look at the comical image of the angry vendor girl in the ugly americans post on this blog. Note how her feisty response is seen as ignorance and stupidity. It is seen as an indication of the sheep-like behaviour of an unthinking, uneducated girl (I’ll not go on about the sexist, classist ignorance of these comments here unless challenged). Sure it is partly ill-aimed nationalism, but it is also a refusal to be dominated. I would suggest that it is also evidence of the legacy of a more revolutionary time. This will not be a popular view for those readers who believe that the revolution consisted of Mao standing at a lectern commanding robot-like supplicants to do his deeds. Anyway, and here I speculate in the extreme, if one feels that the Party needs to go, and that systems of the kind sgugested at the tail end of Sascha’s comment is the way to go, one ought to pay more attention to the potential of actors other than the new middle class to bring about its demise. The Party’s rhetoric and policy under Hu Jintao certainly suggests that the Party recognizes this. If, on the other hand, you are interested in maintenance of the capitalist/market system, the best thing for you is the continued rule of the CPP. If this occurs, it is most likely to do so through the consolidation of a power block comprising the Party and elements of the so-called middle class. The result, perhaps, will be the rise of a pseudo-democratic and highly unequal (in terms of income, wealth, pollution etc. distribution) state.

2. Dago T - November 25, 2013

“The workers are well fed and housed.”

Cool – nothing like LIVING AT WORK!!!

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