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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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