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China: Afterthoughts of Foxconn tragedies

Foxconn, a Taiwanese company and the world's largest maker of electronic components, has become one of the most notorious corporations in China after 13 consecutive suicides of its workers in 2010.

However, given the fact that Foxconn's salary and working environment is not the worst of its kind, no one has been able to provide a satisfactory explanation on the worker suicides. Recently, a full research report, Workers as Machines: Military Management in Foxconn (pdf), on Foxconn workers’ condition conducted by university students and professors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan has been released. The report looks into six major problems in Foxconn's management:

1. Low wages and excessive overtime work;
2. Military management style: absolute obedience, quota system, inhumane punishment and harassment;
3. Lack of prevention and treatment of occupational diseases and work injuries;
4. Exploitation of student interns;
5. Harsh management in workers’ dormitories;
6. Ineffective trade and grievance mechanisms.

Apart from professional reports, bloggers who are concerned about labour rights also try to explain the suicidal psychology of Foxconn workers. Cai Chongguo, a labor activist, points out that it is difficult for other social groups to understand the grassroots workers’ psychology:

从农民工频发的情感悲剧出发,我们会发现,这个阶层有着特别的内心世界,有自己的焦虑、期望、痛苦、欢乐和人格发展的走向。而富士康连续自杀事件激 起的震惊则显示,这个阶层的内心世界,其他阶层,包括公务员、文人、白领很难理解,更别说老板了。因此,他们之间的理解、对话,越来越困难。这是一种可怕的社会断裂。

From the perspective of migrant workers’ string of emotional tragedies, we noticed that this social class has its own inner world with its own worries, expectations, pains, joys and personalities. Foxconn’s recurring suicides demonstrated a shocking fact that this social class’ psychology cannot be clearly comprehended by other social classes, including civil servants, literates and white collars, not to mention these victims’ bosses. Dialogues and understandings among different social classes have become increasingly difficult. This is a terrible social rupture.

Cai believes that the only way to help the workers is to give them the rights to collective bargaining:

富士康的连续自杀,再一次尖锐、通俗地提出了集体谈判、工会等问题.中国大多数人认为,工会,工人权利问题,只是一个平等、尊重人的道德问题,这不错,但远不只这些。回头看工业化两百年的历史,会发现,工人运动,真正的工会及劳资谈判等,是创造现代化企业和社会管理方式的主要力量之一,也是西方国家真正的“软实力”所在。西方的大中型现代化企业有真工会和健全的劳资谈判制度。有这压力,工资福利就不会低到那里去,它就会和物价上涨指数相连互动。工人也有地位。这就是社会力量对比的平衡,即我们所说的”和谐“。而且,因为人工昂贵,企业必须尽量少雇工,这就歪打正着地刺激了对工艺、设备和产品的自动化、更新,即新科技的应用。这也刺激新产品、新行业的产生,并创造新就业机会。这种新行业产生带来的新的就业机会能在相当程度上弥补新技术的应用所导致的 就业减少。这些,是西方企业创新力强的秘密所在。

Foxconn’s suicidal tragedies sharply lead to the issue of collective bargaining and the role of labor unions. It is common sense that the issue of labor unions and worker rights represents a mere moral topic of equality and human integrity. But apart from those mentioned, labor rights movements and labor management negotiations are the major forces that foster modern companies and social management, which constitute the real soft power of western countries. Since labor is expensive, companies have to constantly adopt new technologies and equipment, and this in turn nurtures new products and new industries, and ensuing new job opportunities.

因此,放弃富士康模式,使工人有工会谈判罢工等权利及更高的工资、更好的福利待遇等,不只是避免自杀等道德问题,而且关系到如何使企业管理现代化, 工业及产品及整个经济发展模式的改造的问题。不尊重工人,中国企业很难有普遍创新的冲动和能力,企业间永远在压低工资降低成本而不是在产品质量、独特和创新上竞争。

Therefore, forgoing Foxconn's model and empowering workers to organize labor unions, strikes for higher wages and better benefits would not only avoid suicides, but would also facilitate modern corporate management, industrial upgrading and economic restructuring as a whole. Enterprises can hardly have innovation momentum if they don’t respect workers, which will restrict their competitive edge only at the cost-cutting level, rather than at the product quality and innovative level.

Another renowned blogger, Chang Ping, believes that the seemingly individual psychological problem is ultimately a social problem:


The mass media may be more concerned about those individual suicide cases, but for psychologists, corporate management and policy makers, they should pay more attention to the underlying broader issues. Though most mental patients don’t choose to end their lives by committing suicides, many of them are suffering a painful existence that is even worse than killing themselves. What kind of corporate culture and social environment has impacted and resulted in their tragic existence? As our nation’s citizens, why is their only identity one of being migrant workers? How can they lead a life with dignity and as wholesome human beings?

Chang Ping also points out that Foxconn's management style is not only a production management, it has evolved into a factory based social control system:

人们说,只有在中国大陆,富士康才能做成“世界代工之王”。这并不是指员工人数,而是整个社会政治环境。作为一个纳税大户,它早已经超越了资本的权力,而拥有很大的政治权力。国家有劳动法,但是富士康仍然可以设计以加班为主要收入来源的管理制度;深圳有警察,但是要进入富 士康工厂处理治安问题并不容易,工厂的保安基本上可以代劳;

It’s said that Foxconn can only be the Manufacturing King of The World in mainland China. The title doesn’t refer to the number of staff, but rather to the whole social and political environment. As a major tax payer, Foxconn has possessed great political power beyond its capital power. Though China has labor laws, Foxcoon can still design and implement its management systems that profit from forcing workers to work over-time; though Shenzhen has a police department, it’s not easy for police to enforce law in Foxconn's compounds. Instead, compound securities have been playing the role of police officers themselves.

Bo Haibing also notices the social role of Foxconn in its intern system. The blogger was told by some teachers from occupation schools in Chongqing city that 40% of their graduates would be sent to Foxconn. The information makes the blogger realize that the main objective of the intern system is to keep the unemployment rate low, and hence social stability:


Students have become cheap labour and the occupation schools are the providers. Even the teachers of occupation schools do not take the situation seriously. In their eyes, the students are tools for the “stability-control” schools to further develop. As a result of economic transformation, more young people enter the the factory when compared with the middle aged group. However, because of their lack of working experience, they cannot protect their own rights. Even though they are exploited, they don't know how to present the situation. The corporates are of course more than happy to see that.

富士康不过是榨取低廉劳动力中一个比较大的开发商而已,这样的企业有多少?笔者也不得而知。发展的最终目的是什么?有人说是共同富裕,有人说是可持续的生 活,有人说是为了社会主义。可是,在这儿我却看见了商人本质利益下赤裸裸的榨取每一滴可贵的劳动力。在这种情况之下,如果不加以关注加以治理,任其发展, 就难说发展的目的到底是建立社会主义还是实现可持续的生活了。

Foxconn is only a relatively big developer that exploits cheap labor among countless similar factories in China. What’s the ultimate purpose of this kind of development? Some say it’s for common wealth, some say it’s for sustainable living, while others say it’s for socialism. But, here I saw a bare means of exploiting every drop of workers’ precious labor, driven by merchant’s innate pursuit of business interest. If we don’t care or do something about it and let it go, it can hardly be validated that the goal of economic development is to build a social society or to realize sustainable living.

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