Recently an undercover journalist snuck into the Foxconn factory here in Shenzhen and to hear them tell it, they discovered a shocking picture of how Apple mistreats its workers through the magic of outsourcing. In order to help back this up, the same journalist made much of the recent spate of suicides at the factory and concluded that this too was somehow all Apple’s fault.
From a Shenzhen perspective this article may be one of the worst pieces of reporting I’ve come across in a long, long time. Firstly it’s worth noting that as a serious Chinese employer, Foxconn employs literally millions of people – that’s right, Foxconn employs more people than some countries have citizens. This means that suicides amongst its workforce are not just likely, but almost a statistical certainty.
And it’s statistics that help make sense of this “shock factor” in the reporting, the suicide rate at Foxconn is exactly the same as the background suicide rate in China. So if anything Foxconn can be said to be representative of nothing more than being in China from this figure. If you think that can be blamed on working conditions, it’s time you took a look at another major employer that made the headlines for suicides in the last decade. France Telecom. Again France Telecom, is a massive employer, again the suicide rate at France Telecom was exactly the same as the suicide rate for the whole of France – and France Telecom workers have it pretty easy, they work 35 hour weeks, get masses of holidays, social security benefits, etc.
So take away the “in your face discomfort” figure of suicides, it’s misleading to say the least, and criminally irresponsible to draw any conclusions from it – other than people at Foxconn are no more and no less likely to commit suicide than anyone else in China.
Then what are we left with? One of China’s better employers, that’s right better employers. Whilst working life is definitely hard at Foxconn, with employees working 6 days a week and often for 12-14 hours a day, that’s true of almost any Chinese factory (in fact in many busy factories – it’s unlikely that workers even get a day off a week).
Foxconn workers are clothed, fed, put up in dormitories of an above average standard, and face the usual barrage of developing nation management techniques. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about any of this, and to be fair to Foxconn conditions are much better than most factories in the interior – where wages and benefits are lower and work is harder.
It also needs remembering that for most workers, Foxconn is dramatically better than the conditions they would have faced twenty years ago. Where they would have labored in the fields, amongst lethal chemicals (with no protective gear), from dawn to dusk every single day, with little if any holiday – to earn around a tenth of what they earn today.
China is not a developed nation, it is a developing nation, the GDP per capita is around $5,000 USD – that means on a per person basis there’s much less money to spend on niceties than there is in the West where GDP runs into the tens of thousands of dollars. As the GDP rises, so working conditions and management will improve but at the moment, life at Foxconn is immeasurably better than life in China twenty years ago.
Calls to boycott Apple products, will not hurt Foxconn – they make (or at least assemble) almost every brand name piece of electronic equipment sold in the Western world. So on a like for like swap, they’ll always get your business. And if you decide that because of this – you’ll move to non-brand generic equipment, then they’ll be manufactured in the real horror sweatshops – where labour laws are ignored, where there aren’t 10,000 HR professionals and counselors on call (that’s right Foxconn employed that many support staff when suicide figures hit the news – I don’t think France Telecom put as much resource on their problem) and where there are no annoying first world journalists sneaking around for a non-story that they can sensationalize.