Posts Tagged ‘Foxconn’

Over last few weeks the Apple supplier Foxconn has been in the news yet again for the usual reasons: fights, strikes, riots, underage workers, etc. Every few months the same sweatshop narrative comes up about Foxconn (because apparently it’s the only manufacturer in China), and every time unverified and wildly exaggerated media reports hastily come out (and that doesn’t even include super-fraud Mike Daisy).

I’m always disappointed when this happens; not only because of the eagerness to jump on a largely bogus narrative, but also because it overshadows what I think are the much more interesting nuances of factory life in China. Yes, the hours are long, life is hard and conditions aren’t enviable, but there are deeper issues than that.

Last week I recorded a podcast (listen here) with Liu Zhiyi, a former intern from Southern Weekend, who got a job at Foxconn’s Longhua factory for 28 days in 2010 in order to do undercover reports.

One of the big misconceptions resulting from the sweatshop narrative is that workers are routinely forced to work ungodly hours. In fact, the workers themselves usually demand as much overtime as they can get. While at Foxconn, Liu described this saying, “For the workers desperate for making money, overtime is like ‘a pain that can breathe.’ Without it, the days without money make them ‘suffocate.’”

They’ve travelled so far from their hometowns to work that any idle time not spent making money is seen as a waste.

The conditions are another misconception. At Foxconn, they’re pretty good – especially compared to other factories. (James Fallows recently posted some photos from the same factory Liu worked at – here, here, here and here).

Liu said about the factory, “I have entered a system, and the system can provide everything that I need for my body. We have gymnastics, swimming pool, exercise room… The only thing they don’t provide is time.”

Because of the long hours (which remember, the workers desperately want and will seek elsewhere if they don’t get), it’s easy to lose touch with some simple human needs. Liu explained how roommates are always turning over or working different shifts, so it’s hard to make friends (or even learn people’s names). And because different departments are usually skewed one way or the other toward a single gender, it’s even harder to find a lover. He said the resulting emotional imbalance and conflicts over girls are often what spark fights in the factory.

The thing that surprised Liu most though, and what he sees as the biggest problem, is how workers seem completely puzzled about their futures. Earlier he wrote: “They often dream, but also repeatedly tear apart their dreams, like a miserable painter who keeps tearing up his drafts. ‘If we keep working like this, we might as well quit dreaming for the rest of our lives.’”

He says they’re almost all focused foremost on making a lot of money, but they don’t know how much is enough or what the next step is after making the money. They hope to move up in the world through their hard work, but they often don’t know where the path is, or if there even is a path. This, he says, could be a major problem in the future if society and the government can’t address it.

Anyways, Liu was very insightful about his time in the factory. I hope you’ll listen to the full podcast.

Foxconn: A Very Quiet Riot

Posted: June 7, 2012 in media
Tags: ,

Over the past day or so several foreign media outlets including Huffington Post, Business Insider and Bloomberg TV have been reporting that dozens of workers at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu were arrested after clashing with security at a dormitory. Some said that “workers with a grudge against the security guards prevented them from catching a thief. Soon up to 1,000 workers were ‘throwing trash bins, chairs, pots, bottles and fireworks from the upper floor of the building and destroying public facilities.’”

These outlets cited a single source: Want China Times – a Taiwanese agency which routinely prints stories based on single, unreliable sources (here, here and here, for instance). In this case, WCT cited Molihua – a democracy and human rights advocacy group. Of course, claims that there were 1,000 rioters had to come with evidence. This is it:

Most of the media reporting this story and netizens on Weibo have included this picture with reports of the violence. If you can spot a riot here, you have much better eyes than I do. A couple searches for “Foxconn riots” also bring up this picture:

I can almost hear the crickets chirping.

Bloomberg TV however managed to obtain a much more sensational picture depicting a fire and people in surgical masks:


…but it turns out that picture actually came from an explosion that happened at Foxconn’s Chengdu plant over a year ago.

It’s now been three days since this supposed riot started and this is all we have. No other pictures, no videos, no interviews from rioters. That’s pretty amazing considering “Foxconn riot” is NOT blocked on Weibo and there were allegedly 1,000 people involved.

I got in touch with Foxconn Technology Group and they sent this press release:

We were informed by local law enforcement authorities that late Monday night, several employees of our facility in Chengdu had a disagreement with the owner of a restaurant located in that city. We were also informed that the employees subsequently returned to their off-campus residence, owned and managed by third-party companies, at which time a number of other residents also became involved in the disagreement and local police were called to the scene to restore order. Foxconn is cooperating with local law enforcement authorities on their investigation into this incident.

They didn’t list any numbers, but this seems a far cry from what’s been previously reported.

It’s too early to say definitively that the original Want China Times report (and all those that based their reports entirely on it) were completely wrong, but I think it is safe to say they jumped the gun. Some outlets even tied the alleged violence to poor working conditions, which is completely unsubstantiated. Huffington Post went so far as to title one piece “Foxconn Workers Riot In Chengdu Over Minor Incident, Leads To Massive Uprising” and listed several unrelated conditions at the factory (They’ve since printed a retraction).

Foxconn has been the whipping boy of the media for quite some time now. In 2010 some outlets were ticking off suicides as they happened at the company. The estimated 14 suicides that year do indeed sound bad…until you consider there are over 800,000 employees and that that suicide rate is well below China’s national average (and the US’s for that matter). Both the suicide and rioting over poor working conditions angles fit nicely into the pre-established narrative that Foxconn and its Apple overlord run a repressive sweatshop. Unfortunately for those outlets that perpetuate these angles, there’s just not much evidence to support them.

Update 6/8: Reuters published a story this morning which said:

Seven workers at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu went to a restaurant near their dormitory, but began making a ruckus after an argument between the eatery’s owner and his wife “affected their meal”, said a statement on the Sichuan government website ( released on Thursday.

After the restaurant owner called the police, the workers ran back to their dormitory shouting “they are beating us”, upon which around 100 of their colleagues came in and joined the disturbance, throwing bottles, the statement added.