Category Archives: migrant workers

Foxconn Riots: A Big Deal?

I’ll admit, I mostly shrugged off the news about riots at a Foxconn plant in Taiyuan a few days ago. Foxconn is already famous for a series of worker suicides, and that the riot took place at an iPhone 5 factory shouldn’t be too surprising either- don’t we all already know that Apple doesn’t really think very differently than any other huge company when it comes to the conditions in which its products are made? Evan Osnos writes about what we should take away from this incident:

Though most of the iPhone assembly is done elsewhere, workers said that the iPhone was being made there, too, so the story leapt onto front pages. Anything attached to Apple gets more than its share of attention, but in this case, the Apple factor is far less interesting than what this instance of labor unrest suggests about the months ahead for China.

The riot at Foxconn—or any of the other five hundred “mass incidents” that China records on an average day—has implications far beyond Apple. Labor activists say that they are happening more often this year than last. A little over a week ago, six thousand workers at a Flextronics Technology factory in Shanghai went on strike for severance pay. In June, it was a hundred workers in a mini-uproar at another Foxconn plant. They are no longer simply calling for better wages. “Many of the protests this year appear to be related to the country’s economic slowdown, as employees demand the payment of overdue wages from financially struggling companies, or insist on compensation when money-losing factories in coastal provinces are closed and moved to lower-cost cities in the interior,” as the Times put it.

But the deeper problem is about institutions. Day by day, Chinese workers expect better conditions and greater guarantees that when companies go bust, the employees will not. And, yet, China permits no independent trade unions or free collective bargaining. Complaint and mediation procedures are weak. China today still has, more or less, the same Party-sponsored national trade union it has had for sixty years, even as the economy and the population have transformed. If Beijing is to avoid more riots in the months and years ahead, it needs to stop seeing this as an Apple problem and start seeing it as a China problem.

I’d agree with him that this is a good case to use to an example of the problems facing Chinese workers and labor, but still, as far as I can tell it’s only the Apple connection that made this incident stand out. Otherwise, ‘conditions are bad; workers strike/riot’ is about as Chinese a story as you can get.

More details from China Labor Bulletin:

Photographs and video uploaded to the Internet showed upturned police cars, fences demolished, bikes set on fire and dormitory windows smashed, and many reports claimed that shops inside the complex were broken into. Several thousand armed police were called in to restore order and Foxconn said that some 40 individuals were taken to hospital for treatment.

Although the official version of events from Foxconn attributed the violence to a dispute between workers from different provinces, many workers present at the time were certain the violence erupted after a security guard abused a female employee.

Workers’ sentiment on China’s online forums was divided, some angry, some joyful. Workers were eager to post photos and make comments on the events. And some workers from other Foxconn plants in Henan, Shandong, and Shenzhen posted letters praising the Taiyuan workers for their courage to start a riot.

Amid the general exuberance, there were a few voices calling on workers to stay calm and be rational. A worker, who said he had been employed at Taiyuan Foxconn for three years, highlighted the failure of the Foxconn trade unions to properly represent workers’ interests. This he said had complicated the longstanding conflict between management and workers. He hoped workers could handle the conflict in a rational manner in order to avoid unnecessary casualties.

This post was immediately challenged by another worker, who responded that workers had not meant to instigate a riot but that they had no other way to address injustice. When they called a hotline to complain about the abusive security guards, for example, they were told their complaint could not be handled.

Although several workers posted demands to set up their own more representative trade union, they are unlikely to gain support from local official unions like the workers from Ohms Electronics did in Shenzhen. Foxconn is a major investor in many inland provinces and government officials are eager to please the world’s largest electronics maker by helping it recruit workers. In addition, one of the reasons Foxconn moved its manufacturing bases to China in the first place was to dodge strong unions in Taiwan.

If this reminds us that labor in China is a major source of instability, and that a slowing economy is exacerbating these issues, that’s fine. Otherwise, I don’t see why this is getting disproportionately larger media coverage than any of the comparable incidents that take place on a very regular basis.

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“Chinese Police Crack Down on Guangdong Protesters”

A few protests have been brewing in Guangdong, but it sounds like authorities are starting to get more active in repressing them now. From VOA:

Protests exploded into violence Monday and Tuesday in the provincial city of Zhongshan, with fighting between locals and migrants who have long-complained of wages and benefits lower than those available to local workers.

There has been no official report of injuries or arrests. But media reports from nearby Hong Kong say at least five and as many as 30 people have died in the violence, which also left hundreds of others injured.

The rioting is the latest in a string of violent protests in Guangdong linked to migrant workers and protests against unequal wages and other forms of alleged discrimination.

Last year, hundreds of provincial police battled with migrant workers in Guangdong’s Zengcheng city, following an altercation involving police and a migrant street-vendor and his pregnant wife, who were allegedly selling their wares in front of a supermarket.

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“Dumplings for Sale”

Ethnographer Tricia Wang lived with a migrant worker family for a week and wrote about it- if you only read one China-related thing this year, this should probably be it:

It’s 4am. Children’s footsteps patter outside, water pours from a faucet, pots are pulled out. I overhear Li Jie. “We barely have enough to buy meat for tonight’s dinner. I hope we have return customers today.”

I’ve been living with Li Jie and her family for a few days. She is one of the 200-300 million rural people who have made their way to cities in the hope… I don’t know how to finish that sentence. Usually newspapers finish it with “in the hope of a better life” or “in the hope of securing a job.” Maybe I can finish it by the time I tell you about a day in Li Jie’s life.

By 4.30am, we are eating breakfast crackers and drinking soda. It’s so hot during the day that it’s refreshing to wake up to breathable air. Li Jie’s husband, Mr. Long, and her younger brother, Ray, are putting the batteries into the bike carts to go to the market. The men leave before 5am.

I stay with Li Jie and her son. We take the dumplings out of the freezer and for the second day in a row they’re sticky. Everything that needs to be kept cold is put inside the freezer, but it’s unpredictable. Sometimes it works too well and the beers explode. Most of the time it doesn’t work that well. The dumplings get sticky and uncookable while the beers are perfectly chilled.

Read the rest, if only to understand where all that delicious street food comes from, and what the people who make it have to live through.

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“Indignant workers threaten suicide at Foxconn park in Wuhan”

First, the story itself, as reported by WantChinaTimes:

According to the anti-Chinese government website China Jasmine Revolution, about 300 employees at Foxconn Technology Park in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, threatened to kill themselves by jumping from the top of a building in the park.

On Jan. 2, about 300 employees at the plant belonging to Taiwan-based Foxconn — the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer — asked their employer for a raise. They were told in response to either quit their positions and receive compensation or keep their jobs and receive no additional payment. Most of the employees took the first option but the company terminated the agreement and none of them were given the money they were promised.

As the situation developed, the mayor of Wuhan came to dissuade the former employees from committing suicide. At 9:00pm on Jan. 3, the group chose life.

14 workers at Foxconn plants in other parts of China committed suicide in 2010, with employees frequently complaining of discrimination and long working hours.

Next, some thoughts from Malcolm Moore:

First, a lot of journalists have followed Want China Times’ lead and written that 300 workers were protesting, and that they worked on a Microsoft XBox 360 production line.

We checked both of those things yesterday and couldn’t confirm either. Foxconn said 150 workers had striked. Which matches up with the photographs taken on the roof of the factory – there clearly aren’t 300 people there.

As for the Microsoft line – the worker we managed to get hold of said the new production line that had triggered the protest was making computer cases for Acer. Not Microsoft. But Microsoft were jumpy enough about it all to issue a boilerplate statement saying they were investigating the matter.

So, what conclusions can we draw? Mainly that migrant workers are ever more aware of their rights, and are less and less afraid to hold their employers to ransom if they do not get what they see as reasonable treatment.

The second conclusion is that even though this was not a story about Apple, Foxconn and Apple have become closely linked in the minds of readers. Several commenters at the bottom of my report on the protest called for Apple to stop using Foxconn (I’ve explained previously why this is a very unlikely outcome).

In addition, what happened at Foxconn in 2010, with scores of young people throwing themselves off roofs, mostly in the same campus, was clearly a cluster. And while to some extent it was caused by the feelings of alienation and depression suffered by the workers, it was also caused by Foxconn’s own handling of the incident. As I have written before, Foxconn incentivised its workers to commit suicide by offering huge compensation payments to their families. Those offers were quickly rescinded when it became clear they had provoked workers to weigh up the value of their lives.

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“Death in custody follows fresh unrest in Chinese village”

All the talk about the Guangdong Model doesn’t really add up to much when you have stuff like this still happening:

A Chinese man accused of participating in a riot over land claims in September died in police custody on Sunday, threatening to fan tensions in a far southern region that has become a source of persistent unrest.

The death in Guangdong province occurred as masses of riot police moved to quell a longstanding dispute in Wukan village on the east coast of the booming province, where industrial development has consumed swathes of rice paddies.

The government of Shanwei, an area that includes Wukan village in its jurisdiction, said in the early hours of Monday that Xue Jinbo fell ill on Sunday, his third day in detention over the riot. Hospital doctors later pronounced the man dead despite frantic efforts to save his life.

Pictures on microblogging sites from Wukan village showed large numbers of riot police standing off with residents who are demanding the return of farmland to restore their livelihoods.

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper and two villagers contacted by Reuters said police had used tear gas and blocked all roads to the village.

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“Naked begging reveals loss of dignity among China’s migrants”

Naked protests for Ai Weiwei just a few weeks ago, now naked migrant workers? What is happening in this country?!

A family of four in China were discovered walking naked on the street begging for money to pay for the medical expenses of their newborn baby, an act which has generated criticism of shameful behavior on one hand, while others have felt the family’s behavior is a reflection of what society has done to them first, the official China Youth Daily reports.

Other instances of naked begging have also been seen of late: migrant workers, who have relocated from rural areas to the country’s cities in search of work, going naked to beg for their pay or asking others to beg naked on their behalf. In Chinese culture, nudity is considered the ultimate disgrace, therefore to beg naked is perhaps the strongest expression of degradation. This controversy has therefore served to highlight the hardship of these workers’ lives and the problems that have caused them to shed any vestige of self-respect.

One migrant worker surnamed Han reportedly paid a man to stand naked in public with a sign to protest that he had not been paid by his employer. When asked the reason for the manner of his protest, the man told the China Youth Daily reporter, “I am not afraid of losing face. I am afraid of starving and dying with no one caring about me.”

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Filed under inequality, migrant workers, protest

“7,000 workers in Dongguan stage mass protest”

Guangzhou has been relatively quiet for the last few months, but today it saw a pretty big protest:

Around 7,000 workers at a Taiwan-owned shoe factory in Dongguan took to the streets today, 17 November, in protest at salary cuts and the earlier dismissal of 18 managerial staff, according to posts on Tianya and a Southern Daily reporter’s microblog.

Photographs posted online showed large numbers of police on the street and bloodied workers who claimed to have been beaten by the police. Several other workers had reportedly been detained.

The strike at the Yue Cheng factory in Huang Jiang township was triggered by the dismissal of 18 managers in late October. The company claimed they had been dismissed because of the factory’s decreasing orders and sluggish business. But one of the managers told China Business News that the real reason behind their dismissal was that the factory planned to shift production to Jiangxi in a bid to combat rising costs in the Pearl River Delta.

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