by friends of gongchao (March 2013)
1 | Prologue
Foxconn is the world’s biggest contract manufacturer in electronics and produces for Apple, Sony, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other brands in its large factories in China and other countries. Foxconn’s workers are the iSlaves who face bad working conditions while making our communication tools like iPhones, Kindles or Playstations.
In 2010, a series of worker suicides shook the Chinese Foxconn factories and drew world wide attention. Under pressure from the public outcry, Foxconn promised to improve conditions and pay higher wages, but the situation since then has not changed for the better; Foxconn has accelerated the relocation of factories to the Chinese hinterland, employs student interns as “even cheaper” labor, covers up work accidents to save money, and continues to use a militaristic management regime.1
However, Foxconn workers are far from being the quiet victims of Foxconn’s exploitation and repression. Apart from every day forms of resistance against the rhythm of assembly line production, Foxconn workers have staged strikes and rioted.
2 | Mean Manufacturing
Contract manufacturers are companies that offer their productive capacities to brands without factories, a system developed in the 1970s and 1980s not just in electronics, but also textiles and shoes. Many of these factories are located in special economic zones in countries with low wages – in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
Since the 1980s, Foxconn has developed from a small subcontractor to the world’s biggest manufacturer with more than one million workers in China alone. In its factories of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of workers in industrial centers around the country (e.g. in Shenzhen, Kunshan, Taiyuan, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Zhengzhou, Langfang) Foxconn handles nearly all processes in the development and production of electronic goods “in-house”, and its facilities include low-tech part manufacturing as well as high-tech assembly. Foxconn has refined a production system that is seen as a model for world-market factories and global production chains.
3 | Simply Exploitation
iSlave might as well be spelled “I slave”:2 It is about slaving for the boss in the internet age, being subject to capitalist exploitation and a violent factory regime. The working conditions at Foxconn are characterized by Taylorist work processes on assembly lines and work benches, a shift system with compulsory and partly unpaid overtime, strict and often despotic supervision on the job, high work speed as well as work intensity, and dangerous work environments, both in terms of high risk machinery as well as toxic materials, leading to work accidents and labor-related illnesses.3
The authoritarian management style includes strict controls at work, harsh punishments even for minor “offenses”, body searches by the company security guards, and more. The overcrowded dormitories where most workers live are the extension of the shop-floor and assembly lines, with guarded gates, compulsory cleaning work for the inhabitants, and the allocation of workers from different departments and shifts to one dormitory room, leading to isolation, lack of sleep, and conflicts between workers – a policy used by Foxconn to divide the workers and prevent collective resistance.
4 | Cheaper than Cheap
Most of the production workers are migrants between 16 and 25 years old, with 60 percent being male.4 They are usually paid roughly 1.300 to 2.300 RMB per month (including overtime pay: 160 to 280 euros). That is nominally above the regional legal minimum wage, but still not sufficient to settle down in the cities, start a family, or pay for a life they desire.
To bypass the labor laws, including the minimum wage regulation, Foxconn also employs tens of thousands of mostly 16 to 18 year-old students from technical schools as so-called interns every year.5 Often they are forced by their schools to work for Foxconn as part of their job education, formally doing internships to learn job skills, but, in fact, working on the assembly lines alongside other workers – for lower wages and easily dismissed without compensation. These students serve as a flexible reserve army of workers, and besides Foxconn, many other companies in China tap into this labor pool.
5 | Rebel ‘n’ Riot
The story of the iSlaves is one of exploitation and repression – and of daily resistance and struggle. These are about the capitalist command over the workers and the control over production, about work intensity and speed (production of exchange value) as well as the quality of the produced commodities (production of use value).
Foxconn workers complain about an array of problems: low wages, the brutal machine rhythm, the senselessness and boredom at work, dangerous work environments, the despotic superiors, and crowded dormitories. They compare Foxconn to a prison, its canteen food to pig feed, they hate the daily exhaustion during and after and say things like: “If you stay long at Foxconn you get stupid!” or “Foxconn has betrayed me, so I will not spare it!”6
Apart from voting with their feet – Foxconn has a high labor turnover –, workers frequently use everyday forms of resistance as sabotage or slow-downs and sometimes engage in collective struggles as strikes, for instance, in the factory complexes in Zhengzhou in October 2012 and in Fengcheng in January 2013. Where such forms of struggles were blocked by Foxconn’s militaristic regime, riots have also broken out, as in Chengdu in June 2012 and in Taiyuan in September 2012.7
6 | Fixing the Unfixable
In many industrial centers around China, the number of migrant workers’ struggles has increased since the early 2000s – reaching a first peak with the strike wave in the auto industry in the summer of 2010. The companies were forced to raise wages. One factor here is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fears a destabilization of its rule through workers’ unrest, and, therefore, raised the official regional minimum wages by a yearly average of 12.5 percent from 2006 to 2011, with a predicted further yearly increase of at least 13 percent until 2015.8
Foxconn was under public pressure after the spate of suicides in its Chinese factories in 2010 and raised the wages (only to cut benefits and overtime pay), but it also accelerated the relocation of production units from the coastal Southeast to China’s hinterland where wages are up to 50 percent lower. In doing so, it used the competition between regions and municipalities for investments and received large financial state support. At the same time, Foxconn kept investing in new machinery and work technologies, so far not so much to replace human labor, but to deskill and devalue it further and optimize its subjugation under the machine rhythm. However, neither the spatial fix nor the technological fix solved the unfixable: After 2010, most reported struggles happened in the new greenfield factories.
7 | Diversionary Tactics
For years, the CCP has tried to prevent labor unrest not just through raising minimum wages and repression but also the channeling of proletarian discontent through mediation bodies, labor courts, and direct engagement of the labor bureau. Since these measures have not prevented recurrent waves of labor unrest in the past few years – namely the large wave in the summer of 2010 –, the CCP is experimenting with changes in the union system, partly replacing the top-down appointment of union officials and allowing shop-floor union elections in some companies with a recent history of labor unrest (like the Honda-plant in Foshan where the 2010 strike wave started).
In early 2013, Foxconn announced that it will hold union elections on the shop-floors until July and then every five years. The official CCP union has been active in Foxconn plants since 2006, under tight management control. A “democratic” legitimation of shop-floor union representatives is supposed to counter Foxconn’s sweatshop image. Foxconn wants to undermine the union-independent resistance behind the workers’ strikes and other actions. The union reform will give the management more information on the workers’ discontent, so it can take counter-measures and prevent collective actions at an early stage.
8 | Just Shitstorms
Foxconn draws a lot of critique and attacks for the brutal exploitation and harsh working conditions – as does Apple: The US-company is a glittering brand symbolizing a globalized
capitalist culture built on a harsh form of wage slavery – in suppliers’ factories like Foxconn, in Apple-stores, and elsewhere.
The international campaign against these companies started already before the suicides in 2010 and aims at bringing shame, increasing public pressure, and organizing customer boycotts – hoping this would make Foxconn improve conditions.9 How much impact this campaign has had, is hard to say. To be sure, Apple is concerned about its image to keep up sales, but so far Apple and Foxconn have only made theatrical promises and cosmetic changes. What else could we expect? The actual pressure is due to the high worker turnover rate mixed with the labor shortage in industrial centers in China and the frequent workers’ struggles in Foxconns factories.
However, this is not so much about the efficiency of shitstorms and campaigns against certain companies. Most of these campaigns risk to produce (or aggravate) the following problems: (1) They often limit themselves to a critique of “over-exploitation”, “mean bosses”, “undemocratic companies”, or “union-busters”. That leads them to make demands for a “socially responsible” management, “democratic” mediation of capital-labor conflicts, or worse: the intervention of the (authoritarian) state to establish or restore “social justice”; (2) the campaigns often promote (independent) unions, collective bargaining, or other forms of negotiation between capital and workers; and (3) the campaigns ask for the support of workers’ struggles from the outside, through “consumers” in “rich countries” for “producers” that are presented as weak (or as victims) in “poor countries”.
9 | No More iSlavery
Good intentions granted, (1) this shortened (ideological) critique of capitalism leads to illusions of profound changes through reformist mediation. Rather than a pendulum of workers’ struggles and capitalist fixes within a reformed capitalist framework, class struggle is about overcoming exploitation. Furthermore, (2) workers at Foxconn will improve their conditions if they built up workers’ power expressed through the refusal of work through strikes or other forms of struggle at Foxconn plants. Any union can only negotiate favorable deals during collective bargaining processes as long as the workers are able to continue this kind of collective action. Finally, (3) the fatal misinterpretation of how to pave the way for united struggles of proletarian subjects around the globe deepens the divisions between working classes in different parts of the world.
In times of a deep capitalist crisis with new class movements world wide that show their ability of self-organization, campaigns make sense if they attack all capitalist structures of exploitation, do not argue for class mediation, and are based on mutual solidarity “on the same eye-level”. Solidarity is possible when (potentially) rebellious and empowered subjects see common goals and connect their struggles. In the case of Foxconn, this means that industrial workers in Foxconn factories in China (or the Czech Republic and other countries), coltan miners in Congo, sales personnel in Apple stores and call centers around the world and others fight against their own exploitation and refer to the exploitation and struggles along the production chain.
10 | Epilogue
The shocking part of Foxconn is not the extreme and mean but the routine and apparent normality of exploitation and humiliation. The term iSlave does not just stand for this particular form of wage slavery, but the principle of exploitation through wage labor itself: the subordination under an authoritarian production regime, the extortion of surplus value through deadening labor processes. In other words, Foxconn’s crude form of exploitation is not based on the evil minds of the capitalists behind the company (well, evil minds they have), but on the logic of capital accumulation. Its despotic management is a strategy to dominate and squeeze out the labor force, and as such, a reaction to the daily resistance and struggles of the workers “from below”.
This daily struggle of the iSlaves is about how much and to what price their labor power will be exploited – or whether they should do exhausting, monotonous, dangerous factory jobs at all. They are not victimized cogs in the machinery of capital – as seen from capital’s perspective – but a force that continuously disrupts the capitalist plan of production and reproduction. Foxconn workers stand for the class conflict in the Chinese global factory, and as such, their struggles are part of currently intensified global class struggles that are the source and result of the crisis of capitalism itself. If the power of workers in Chinese global factories increases to a stage where it destroys the current global chain of capital accumulation, anything is possible. Let’s not just watch, wait, and hope.
Report from the Foxconn factory in Chongqing, 201110
Yang, student and production worker – “The machine is your lord and master”
Production quotas and quality controls press the workers as much as the usage of verbal violence. This was most obvious during morning assemblies. First, all the names were called. Then the line leader explained the tasks of the day and pointed to problems like lack of cleanliness at the workplace, the mess on the work benches, speaking during working hours and badly done work. Every morning we had to listen to this rebuke. (…)
The supervisors suppress the workers, the machines take away the workers’ sense of the meaning and value of life. The work does not demand any ability to think for oneself. Every day the same simple bodily motions are repeated, so that the workers gradually lose their feelings and become apathetic. They are not in the present anymore with their thoughts. I realized how, during work, I had frequent blackouts. I had already internalized all work movements and suddenly awoke with a start and did not know if I had processed the last workpiece or not. I had to ask my colleague. (…)
The machines appear as strange creatures that suck in raw materials, digest them inside, and spit them out as an end product. The automatized production process simplifies the workers’ tasks, who do not have an important function for production anymore. They rather serve the machines. We have lost our value that we should have as human beings, and we became an extension of the machines, their appendix, yes, their servant. I often thought that the machine is my lord and master whose hair I had to comb as a slave. I could not comb too fast, neither too slow. I had to comb neatly and orderly, no hairs should break, and the comb should not fall down. If I did not do it right, I was pruned. (…)
One day a female worker told me that in January of the same year the overtime hours were not paid and, therefore, workers downed their tools. (…) Some had taken the initiative and refused to work overtime that day. The other workers in the workshop immediately joined them and at the end of the normal shift, a big part of the workers did not work overtime and left the workshop. Some of those who had taken the initiative at the time later left the company or were transferred to other departments.
In the workshops you could often observe how workers looked for opportunities to goof off. One day my colleague Ming came over. We are good friends, but I still wondered why he had nothing to do during working hours. “My machine broke down,” he said. I replied: “That’s great.” He stayed a while and whispered to me: “I have damaged the machine on purpose. I only had to use the emergency button, then the machine stopped. I put the power switch back to the original position so nobody knows what happened.” Another workers told me that in times when there is too much to do or when he wants to have some peace he treats standard parts as waste and destroys them so he has to produce them once more. That way he can reduce the given production quota and slow down work speed. He said: “My colleague at the night shift has even discarded two boxes of standard parts.”
Of course, there is a simple and direct form of resistance, voting with the feet, that is, simply leaving. Once I got a text message after the shift from a worker: “I quit! It is nothing, I just do not want to endure the nightly torture any more.” He had worked for Foxconn a mere 35 days.
1 This is the conclusion of a research project on Foxconn documented in the book: Pun Ngai, Lu Huilin, Guo Yuhua, Shen Yuan (2012): Wo Zai Fushikang (Me at Foxconn), Beijing. A German version of the book came out in March 2013: iSlaves – Ausbeutung und Widerstand in Chinas Foxconn-Fabriken (Exploitation and Resistance in China’s Foxconn-Factories), Vienna; see http://www.gongchao.org/de/islaves-buch.
2 The English word ‘slave’ comes from Old French ‘sclave’, from the Medieval Latin ‘sclavus’, from the Byzantine Greek σκλάβος (sklábos). The word σκλάβος, in turn, comes from the ethnonym Slav, because in some wars in early medieval times many Slavs were captured and enslaved (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slave); the “i” in iPhone or iPad stands for internet, but also for individual, for I (as in me), see: http://www.quora.com/History-of-Apple-Inc/How-did-Apple-choose-the-i-naming-convention-iMac-iPod
3 More information in English: http://www.gongchao.org/en/islaves-struggles. An interesting interview with a former Foxconn worker describing the labor conditions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhf0tgtXd8c&feature=youtu.be
4 That has changed in the past decade. Before, the vast majority of workers was female, but due to the labor shortage in the industrial centers, especially the Pearl-River-Delta, Foxconn started to hire more male workers.
5 The interns constituted up to 15 percent of the total Foxconn workforce in 2010: Pun Ngai/Chan, Jenny: The Spatial Politics of Labor in China: Life, Labor, and a New Generation of Migrant Workers. The South Atlantic Quarterly 112:1, Winter 2013
6 See the workers stories in: Pun Ngai, Lu Huilin, Guo Yuhua, Shen Yuan (2012) mentioned in footnote 1.
7 For a list of strikes and riots at Foxconn plants see the table at http://www.gongchao.org/en/Texts/2013/list-of-labor-unrest-at-foxconn
8 See http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/08/us-china-economy-jobs-idUSTRE8170DY20120208; according to another account, “real
wages measured in 2005 dollars have risen 350 per cent in the past 11 years” in China: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7412b714-6fc3-11e2-8785-00144feab49a.html#axzz2LeN0U055
10 Excerpt from: Pun Ngai, Lu Huilin, Guo Yuhua, Shen Yuan (2012) mentioned in footnote 1.