Sunday, 21 October 2012

China's Labour Woes Worsen

Workers quickly filling orders at a Foxconn plant
In the last few days James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly has been posting pictures and commentary on his blog on his recent visit to Foxconn in Shenzhen.

His photos depict an extremely large campus that is like a town where the factory is the main place of employment surrounded by auxiliary services such as canteens, health clinics, entertainment (ie empty swimming pool, internet cafe), counselling and stores.

Fallows did point out the netting that are a flimsy bid to stop the numerous suicides at the man Foxconn plants, but on the whole the factory line looks very clean and orderly. The dorms at this factory don't look too bad though spartan -- four to a room and the bunk bed is on top with a closet and desk below. He added that the assembly-line workers are six to eight in a room, which indicates Fallows was shown the nicer areas.

However he did not indicate whether sleeping patterns in these dorms had changed -- previously many workers complained they did not know anyone else in their dorms and each had different shifts which led to lack of sleep and furthered people's feelings of isolation.

Nevertheless, Fallows' visit coincides with an investigative report by China Labour Watch stating that the Henan provincial government put pressure on vocational schools and local authorities to supply labour to Foxconn in order to cope with its high turnover rate and the recent release of the iPhone 5.

As a result students are pulled out of their studies and placed in the assembly lines -- some as young as 14. Some state media reports say the use of underage labour was acknowledged by Foxconn and that these students work 12 hours a day.

Also, students at Yantai Engineering and Technology College had an "internship program" with Foxconn, but they actually had to work in the factory. The students said they had no choice -- they were told that they needed the experience in order to graduate. About 60 students from the college were allegedly under 16.

"They said they were forced to work by their teachers," said Li Qiang, founder of CLW in an earlier interview. "They don't want to work there -- they want to learn. But if they don't work, they are told they will not graduate, because it is a very busy time with the new iPhone coming, and Foxconn does not have enough workers without the students."

Provincial and local governments are complicit in rounding up cheap labour in order to fulfill GDP results.

The ploy of getting students to do adult factory work is outrageous, but somehow coming from China seems almost expected which is even worse.

Stanley Lubman who writes a column for the Wall Street Journal adds that there are other creative ways to get manpower, including dispatch labour.

Apparently there are some 60 million such dispatch workers -- or one-fifth of China's urban labour force -- who are hired by employment companies to work in factories like Foxconn.

These dispatch workers only have a contract with the employment agency and not the factory and are treated worse than those hired directly by the factory. These dispatch workers are as it sounds -- temporary and used when needed, and earn very little overtime pay or have any severance.

Why does China persist in exploiting its own people? Does Beijing think its labour supply is limitless?

Indeed on my first day at work in Beijing, I had lunch with my bosses and one of them was proud to say labour from the countryside was limitless.

Well, there are a growing number of news reports that work shortages are happening especially in southern China, where workers are fed up with poor conditions and pay.

And couple that with a major drop in the younger population due to the one-child policy, it's a recipe for disaster in terms of having enough people working on the assembly lines.

While China may blame the rest of the world for wanting labour intensive high-tech products, it only has itself to blame for not respecting its own citizens.

This ongoing refrain of cheap labour has to end. As I've noted before, China does not have enough jobs for educated people.

And hence the factories continue to churn out exhausted workers day in, day out.

Should we be surprised the Foxconn workers in Taiyuan were rioting last month?

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