The Labor Rights Abuse Bonus

I almost didn’t read this latest article about Foxconn because it doesn’t make me feel “good” to read about Foxconn, but I read it anyway because sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. So: The point of this article by the excellent Josh Eidelson is that Foxconn really isn’t going to allow its employees to unionize (it said it would allow its employees to unionize). But another point is this: “[Apple] didn’t create the labor rights status quo in China,’ said Nova, ‘but they certainly have exploited it … Every time that Apple buys an iPhone from Foxconn … they’re getting a bonus. It’s the labor rights abuse bonus.’” MEANWHILE IN NEW YORK, I had a dream last night that my house burned down but I didn’t care at all because I had my laptop and iPhone with me. LRAB.

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8 Comments / Post A Comment

Just going to jump in with the two facts that always get left out of the discssion over Foxconn.

1) Wages for Chinese factory workers have been increasing at a rapid clip, despite the lack of “proper” unions. In some places 15% a year or more (in real, inflation-adjusted terms). Working at Foxconn is considered a fairly desirable job, and people aren’t “trapped” there — young people come from the villages to work there for a few years, make enough money to build a house/get married, then go back home.

2) People talk about Foxconn as if it is more or less a wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple, or some kind of direct extension of Apple. Foxconn is very much an autonomous actor. They are the largest electronics contract manufacturer in the world. They also make Kindles and Wiis and Playstations and laptops for every major manufacturer. Apple is an important customer for them, but it’s not like they take their day-to-day marching orders straight from Cupertino.

Finally, one thing people often forget is that Foxconn is a Taiwanese multinational company (which has its own geopolitical meaning in China) with factories in Brazil, the Czech Republic (Foxconn is the 2nd largest exporter in the CZ), Hungary, Slovakia, Chennai, Malaysia, and Mexico. If I’m doing the conversion right, their revenues in 2011 were about $116 billion, not too far off from Apple’s $156 billion in 2012.

What I’m saying is, we should be looking at Foxconn as an important company in its own right, and not as some kind of proxy/lapdog for Apple.

@stuffisthings (I should say that those wages increases are in large part due to the courageous actions of labor activists and individual workers who spontaneously organize against abuses! But it’s important to note that Chinese workers are not passive victims)

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@stuffisthings It’s a “good” job relative to the other jobs available in China, which are even more horrible. I still think it’s more than a bit problematic that a major US company is doing business in a place where labor unions are illegal, there are no workplace safety laws, and the government is still, in name at least, Communist. (although yes, now it’s only Communistic with regard to civil rights and capitalistic with regard to its economy – THE BEST COMBINATION). Apple could if it wanted to, change things in China almost singlehandedly, but it chooses not to because of profit.

@WaityKatie That’s exactly my point — Apple CAN’T “singlehandedly” change how things work in China. The U.S. imports more than $300 billion worth of all kinds of stuff from China each year, usually through intermediary firms like Foxconn that are powerful in their own right.

The people who CAN change China’s labor practices are China’s workers, who frequently go on strike and win concessions.

From a labor-relations perspective, would you rather be a worker in a country where unions are illegal but workers frequently win concessions and major wage increases through strikes, or one where unions are semi-protected under the law but completely emasculated and basically limited to bargaining away their previous gains?

@WaityKatie Also I should point out that the United States is something of a pariah when it comes to legal protection of labor unions. We would not be eligible for entry into the European Union based on our labor laws alone, for example.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@stuffisthings People can be put in jail in China for forming or joining unions. How can we possibly sit back and just wait for them to change their own conditions? Yes, the few who are brave enough to form unions anyway are incredible, just like our civil rights heroes of the 60′s were, but… yeah, I’m gonna go with our (craptacular) system where no one literally gets beaten or imprisoned for joining a union over that. (And yes, Europe’s laws are way better).

@WaityKatie True — but I just don’t see Apple being the pathway to change here. Let alone Apple customers.

Suppose Apple gets on the phone to Foxconn tomorrow and says “Look guys we don’t like the fact that independent labor unions are illegal in China, please change this.” Would Foxconn A) move iPhone production to a country where unions are legal, and continue abusing workers there, as they do in Mexico? or B) use their position as a Taiwan-based multinational corporation to somehow lobby the Chinese Communist Party to dissolve the ACFTU and allow independent unions? (which, incidentally, would almost certainly get whatever Foxconn rep was charged with this task thrown into prison) Or would they decide it’s cheaper to just give up the Apple contract and continue making electronics for HP, Dell, Sony, Cisco, Amazon, Nintendo, Google, Acer, Motorola, Microsoft, Nokia, Toshiba, etc.?

Generally speaking, the record of gigantic Western tech companies trying to change Chinese state policy has not been stellar. I don’t know why we imagine Apple would succeed where Google failed, for example.

If you’re really interested in doing something other than “waiting for them to change their own conditions” you could contact SACOM and see if they accept donations from overseas.

And again: Foxconn workers are routinely winning 15% raises through unauthorized strikes. Your union hasn’t been able to stop hundreds of thousands of their members from getting furloughed. I think they are doing an alright job of effecting change on their own.

Also here is a pretty great article on ODMs (manufacturing companies like Foxconn that make the vast majority of our gadgets), in USA Today of all places: http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/02/25/foxconn-failing-minyanville/1945707/

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