by gongchao/kpk (April 2013)
We met Lucia, a woman in her mid-twenties, in her hometown in central Slovakia. We had contacted her through friends, eager to find out more about the conditions in the Foxconn plant in Nitra, Slovakia. Lucia had worked there for six years before being dismissed with hundreds of other workers in early 2012. The following report is based on the interview we made with her.
After school Lucia had worked for a factory in the Czech Republic before going back to Slovakia and joining the factory of Sony in Trnava in 2006. She stayed with the company when the factory was transferred to Nitra in late 2007 and then taken over by Foxconn in early 2010. The factory produces Sony-TVs, panels, and motherboards.
At the beginning, Lucia worked at Sony through an agency and lived in a dorm in Trnava. Later she got a permanent contract with Sony that was taken over by Foxconn. She says that after her few others got a permanent full-time contract with Foxconn. She started as a production worker in the assembly of TV-sets. Later she became a quality controller and also worked as a stand-in/floater.
Sony had employed 1,500 workers in Trnava, and the number increased to 3,000 in Nitra. While Sony produced 330 TVs per day in Trnava, Foxconn produced 400 in Nitra, and the number increased later to 550 and 900 TVs per day. Lucia emphasized that the quality of the Foxconn-TVs is much worse.
When Foxconn took over the factory, they kept most of the workers, and the technology and the production process stayed the same. The factory continued to produce Sony TVs, but the bosses changed, and according to Lucia, the controls were intensified, and audits were frequent. Before these audits there was high pressure from the side of the supervisors to clean everything and to work hard.
About 50 percent of the workers at Foxconn were employed through an agency, and 50 percent were core workers, but most of the latter have a limited contract with Foxconn. The agency workers were employed for days, weeks, or months, with breaks in between. While the agency workers got accommodation in dormitories, the core workers did not. Only line leaders and higher employees got housing support of 100 euros and up.
All workers were Slovaks, a few with Roma background, no one from abroad. Most were young, but some of those taken over by Foxconn are older, up to 50 years, and had been working in the factory for 15 years. Lucia said that the relations between core workers and temp workers were generally good; they worked at the same lines together, but some lines only had agency workers.
The wages did not change much when Foxconn bought the factory from Sony. At Sony, Lucia got 500 euros per month as a core worker, later at Foxconn that was reduced bit by bit. The wage slip was incomprehensible. The highest wage Lucia earned was 550 euros after tax, but it mostly fluctuated between 330 and 450 euros. The agency workers earned more than the core workers, about 600 euros per month (or between 3,00 and 3,30 euros/hour plus overtime).
The factory was working morning and afternoon shifts first, and nightshifts for the production of motherboards. Each shift lasted 8-hours, with overtime when orders had to be finished. It could happen that the morning shift had to work until 6pm – especially in the high season after the summer holidays in preparation for the Christmas sales.
The core workers, who lived in Nitra and other towns, were taken to the factory by company buses which agency workers were not allowed to use. Lucia had to get up at 3am, take the bus at 4am, and start work at 6am. She was back home at about 4pm; her bus ride was 90 minutes each way.
The production targets were communicated during the morning meeting; after that the workers were obliged to read the operation plan at their station; screens showed the number of produced units and the difference to the production target (red=below target, green=above target). If an order had to be finished they had to stay at work and do it, if it was not so urgent, it could be finished by another line or on the next day.
Lucia added that since 2010 this has changed, that there’s only an extended morning shift now, due to a lack of orders. While before they had worked weekdays and overtime-shifts on Saturday when there had been many orders, with no work on Sundays, after that there was no work on Saturdays either.
99 percent of the workers could not keep up with the work pace, said Lucia. The work was very exhausting and too fast, and there was not enough time for eating or going to the toilet. The breaks were too short and the way to the canteen too long. When there were no orders for one line, the workers had to work at other lines or do cleaning tasks. While at Sony in Trnava the workers could go outside or drink coffee in such a situation, at Foxconn they had to stay at the lines, even for hours.
There was a high turnover, and Lucia says that agency workers who had worked at Foxconn for a while usually never came back.
Foxconn had a strict system of punishments in the Nitra-factory, with a 100 euro-fine for the first breach of rules. After the third punishment workers were dismissed. Coming late to work or after the break was enough to get punished. “We were told to shut our mouths and work.”
The workers were not allowed to talk during work, there was no music, it was completely silent and very boring. It was hard to slow down the work process, because the managers intervened immediately when they saw a change on the screens. However, if work was sped up, quality dropped.
The hierarchy was strict: The lowest level was made up by the production workers at the assembly lines who had to wear grey anti-static vests (Lucia still got an electric shock once); the stand-ins/floaters and quality controllers got 50 euros higher wages – but Lucia said that she never got that when she worked in those functions –, and wear the same vests; the line-leaders, often Slovaks from the area, wore yellow vests; the shift-leaders wore green vests; the managers had red vests: some of them were Slovaks, most Chinese or Spanish.
Lucia described the shouting and arguing in the factory over overtime or quality problems. Once, a whole line went home despite an overtime announcement. She said: “In the factory it is important to take a stand.”
Gendered Division of Labor
Men were assigned to jobs that included the lifting of heavy weights (for instance, of TV-sets onto the assembly line), while women had all the so-called simple jobs, like the mounting of components. There were many women among the line-leaders. Lucia emphasized that she did not want to become a line leader because the wage was not much higher, but line-leaders had much more responsibility. A few women were among the shift-leaders, but no women among the managers. With the crisis, all agency workers were laid off and the women with permanent contracts had to do the jobs men had done before, like lifting; where beforehand two people had worked at one station, now one worker had to manage the same workload.
According to Lucia, one worker started a union in the factory in Nitra (see interview-excerpts below), and it did negotiate with the management, but it was not successful in improving bonuses, wages or in preventing dismissals. The union people went around in the factory – which was not allowed by Foxconn – and asked people to join, but few signed in. The guy who started the union was dismissed, and after that there was no more union activity in the plant. Lucia said: “The union did not change anything.”
There was little information on the Foxconn plants in the Czech Republic, but some workers had worked there before and said that the working conditions were better there. Workers heard about the suicides in China and discussed them. Lucia mentioned, that they had jokingly said that there would be suicides in the Slovak plant in the future, too.
After 2010 the factory was downsized. From 32 production lines they reduced the number to 15 lines in early 2012, and to 5 lines in early 2013. There were several waves of mass dismissals in the past two years, sometimes of one hundred or more workers. All the agency workers were laid off, and many core workers sit at home and wait for a phone call to go to work. Sometimes there is work for a day or two. Those who stay home receive 60 percent of their wage. Usually, at the beginning of each year, a new product line is introduced, but not this year.
Lucia was sacked in early 2012 with 700 workers. She got severance pay for three months, paid out together with the yearly bonus and her last wage, totaling over a 1000 euros. Since the sum was paid out all at once on purpose, the tax deduction was greater than it would otherwise be. She found a job in a restaurant after a few months.
Lucia worked in the factory for six years, starting when she was a teenager. According to her, the time ran fast, but felt like ten years. For her, these years were “wasted”, and she would never do it again.
Excerpts from a newspaper-interview with the union representative at the Foxconn plant in Nitra, Oto Masaryk
(“Odbory: Cieľom Foxconnu je zbaviť sa stálych pracovníkov”, Pravda, May 30, 2011, no. 124, p. 11).
“The way the employer sees it, if there are no orders, the workers don’t work and don’t get paid. If the weekly orders are covered by Thursday, then Friday is written off, people stay at home and earn nothing. From the point of view of the employer, this is great, they reach maximum flexibility. But the people have hardly anything to feed their families. …
This is how it works. In the morning, the manager announces that on that day, we will produce 600 TV-sets. If we don’t make it, we have to catch up by overtime. Of course, people get tired and make mistakes. If you mis-mount a contact, it is viewed as a breach of discipline. One breach cuts your yearly bonus (13th wage) by a half, the second cuts it altogether and the third gets you dismissed. …
Ironically, agency workers have better conditions than core workers, even though everywhere around the world, it’s the other way around. A new agency employee gets 3,20 euros per hour. After four years of working here, I get 2,38 euros per hour. Agency workers also have transit and accommodation covered. It’s not alright, and someone is definitely making a profit off of this. …
In our workplace, you either work overtime or stay at home. The result is maximum flexibility. To achieve the most efficient production, they need to get rid of most of the core workers and hire people exclusively through agencies. There are situations when in one day the LCD panel production line is shut down and others run normally. Also, the company doctor will gladly sign a dismissal for health reasons for anyone, so that the company only pays 2-month severance.”