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Amid the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration’s assault on China, many multinational corporations are reconsidering the opportunities and risks in global supply chains, particularly those based in China. Less studied is how hundreds of millions of Chinese workers continue to face threats to health and livelihood, ranging from labor and environmental hazards to loss of income from factory closures.

When Time magazine nominated workers in China as the runners-up in the 2009 Person of the Year, the editor commented that Chinese workers have brightened the future of humanity by leading the world to economic recovery. Many young workers, however, have seen their dreams of a better life shattered and their futures destroyed. In our book, Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers, we look behind the dazzling Apple narrative of high tech miracles to explore the hopes and despair of a new generation of Chinese workers who came of age from the 1990s to today.

 

Suicide

A stunning demonstration of the gap between high hopes and shattered dreams occurred during 2010 when eighteen workers were known to have attempted suicide at Foxconn facilities in China. Fourteen died. Four survived with crippling injuries. Tragically, ranging in age from 17–25, they were in the prime of youth. To understand why this happened, we need to understand the relationship between the corporate hype of the electronics giants and the sordid life of the million-strong Foxconn workers. And what is the relationship between Apple and its largest contractor Foxconn?

Following the twelve ‘jumpers’, on 28 May, Taiwan unions and labor activists unfurled white banners to mourn the workers in a protest against Hon Hai Precision Industry—Foxconn’s corporate home in Taipei. The banner on the left read ‘For wealth and power: physical and mental health spent, hopes lost.’ The banner on the right read ‘For profit of the brand: youthful days devoted, dreams shattered.’ Shortly after, independent rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) demonstrated at Foxconn’s annual general meeting in Hong Kong to extend condolences to the victims’ families and demand reforms in the interest of workers.

Dying for an iPhone - Jenny Chan

SACOM protesters in Hong Kong, 2011

By the end of June, a team of suicide prevention experts assembled by Apple—the largest customer of Foxconn—recommended a series of quick Foxconn actions, including hiring psychological counselors, establishing a 24-hour care center, and, grimly, attaching large nets to the factory buildings to prevent death from jumping. Two experts, accompanied by then Apple chief operating officer Tim Cook and other Apple executives, also met with Foxconn CEO Terry Gou and members of his senior staff to better understand the conditions at the site.

Like Foxconn, Apple confined discussion of the issues to the realm of psychology and mental health, ignoring company policies on contentious issues, including wages and excessive compulsory overtime. In driving its contractors to produce on a gargantuan scale, and setting precise standards in the most cost-effective way, Apple has remained in the driver’s seat.

The anti-suicide nets and locked and barred windows surrounding the manufacturing buildings and worker dormitories installed in 2010 and remaining today are a grim reminder of

worker hardship and the shared corporate failure of Foxconn, Apple, and other tech companies, as well as the failure of the Chinese state to guarantee worker rights.

 

Undercover research in China

Between summer 2010 and the outbreak of new coronavirus at the end of 2019, through interviews, poems, songs, open letters, photos, and videos shared by workers, we investigated the hidden world of Foxconn production. Foxconn was the exclusive final manufacturer not only of iPhones for Apple, but also a major contractor of a wide array of electronics products for many other technology giants including Microsoft, Amazon, Intel, Dell, HP, Samsung, Sony and Huawei.

Foxconn’s transformational vision is in sync with the technological upgrading policy promoted by China’s leaders. By revenues, the company topped US$175 billion in 2018, ranking 23rd on the Fortune Global 500 list. Today, it has more than forty industrial parks across coastal and interior China. To further increase profits, Foxconn has climbed the value chain through research, patent acquisition, automation, digitization, and above all, strong labor control.

The upgraded iPhone is hailed as a thinner, faster, and brighter model. Apple’s ever-tightening production cycle has pressured factory workers to speed up. Under extreme conditions, Foxconn workers were only allowed one day off a month in the lead up to the release of a new product. Days off were cancelled and the sick were pressed to work.

Apple and other international companies should be held accountable for rights violations at Foxconn (and other supplier factories). The buyer-driven business model assures the primacy of profitability for companies that operate at the top of industries and precarious working conditions for workers on the front lines of production.

 

Chinese workers and student interns in global supply chains

Foxconn is China’s largest private employer with approximately one million workers, including teenage student interns drawn from vocational secondary schools and colleges.

Good internship programs are practice-oriented and participatory, contribute to students’ development, and are related to their field of study. But Foxconn has remained silent about its workplace training content and skill evaluation methods. Interviews with student interns make clear the mockery of the internship concept: students in a range of fields from healthcare to auto repair are simply placed on the assembly line with no skill training, working overtime and night shifts like all other workers.

In fact, Foxconn’s internship programs were often extended to meet factory production plans, ranging from three months to a full year, in complete disregard of student training needs. It is a cruel irony that internships are not performed for the benefit of the intern. Working day and night to make the iPhones during peak periods of demand, interns have no time to study or rest properly.

Dying for an iPhone - Jenny Chan

San Francisco Chinese Progressive Association protest in solidarity outside an Apple store

Foxconn and Covid-19

New issues emerge in the era of the global pandemic. As of March 2020, Foxconn reported that its major factories in China had returned to normal production after the coronavirus outbreak forced it to cease production in late January. With governmental coordination, hundreds of thousands of rural migrant workers from all over the country eventually reported to duty.

The company union reminds workers to wear masks at work and in the dormitories, while lecturing workers that a healthy workforce functioning at full speed must make up for lost time. Are the densely populated working and living conditions of Foxconn safe and healthy amid coronavirus crisis? How long will Foxconn and the Chinese state be able to quell discontent and block the emergence of effective workers’ representation and the securing of fundamental worker rights?

Our book, sparked by the rash of suicides and grounded in research on Foxconn, Apple, and the Chinese state, looks at the inhumane labor practices to inspire transnational activism. Companies, the state, and civil society should join hands to make production fairer. Despite pressures from both the Chinese state and global corporations, labor organizing for sustainable change continues. When workers unite to reclaim their dignity and right to fair labour, the case of Foxconn could spark a new round of global labour struggles.

Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn and the Lives of China’s Workers is out now from Pluto.

Jenny Chan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. She is also the Vice President of the International Sociological Association’s Research Committee on Labour Movements.

Mark Selden is Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University. He is editor of the Asia-Pacific Journal. His books include China in Revolution: The Yenan Way Revisited; The Political Economy of Chinese Development.

Pun Ngai is Professor of Sociology at The University of Hong Kong. She is author of Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace and Migrant Labor in China.