Imagine having a job so thoroughly relentless that it permeates everything in your life, even to the point that it infects your very desire to live. For 11 employees at Foxconn — an electronics manufacturer in China — that’s exactly what happened. A rash of suicides have been plaguing the company, with the latest occurring as recently as this week.
Conditions for Foxconn workers — which number upwards of 800,000 across its China-based plants — seem unimaginable to us. According to the news reports, workers had to agree to insane-looking requirements just to work there. They signed contracts waiving overtime maximum caps, committing to 60 to 100 hours of extra work per month (the legal limit is 36 hours). They live in company dormitories like drones, being shuttled back and forth from work to home, as they struggle to make up for undermanned plants. (On average, Foxconn reportedly lost 50,000 workers monthly, so the remaining workers have to make up the manpower.) Some reports assert that workers are not even allowed to talk while on the manufacturing line, which is typically for the majority of the day. And for this, they receive roughly $132 a month in minimum wages — a good salary in China for this type of work, but a mere pittance in relation to Foxconn’s earnings and corporate ranking in the country.
It’s hard for us here in America to wrap our heads around this. And it’s easy for us to point fingers at a tech manufacturing facility half a world away, and write it off as just another case of a greedy corporate dictator earning profits at the expense of its workers. But prior to the worldwide media attention that has been scrutinizing this company, Foxconn — seriously flawed as it may be — had a rep as being one of the best manufacturing employers in China. That may seem unbelievable, and it is, but it also raises an interesting question: What does that say about the cultural and corporate landscape that produces such tragedy?
I believe that CEO Terry Gou must be scratching his head right now, wondering why his company’s being demonized when the plant down the street is probably committing far worse infractions. Even so, Foxconn is struggling to turn around this public relations nightmare. During a photo op in front of a company swimming pool, Gou stated unequivocally that he does not run a sweat shop. (Swimming pool? Do these employees really have any time to swim in it?) The company also said that it’s making psychiatrists available for its workers, along with volunteers trained in suicide prevention, and just recently announced 20% raises as well as a facility relocation, so employees can be closer to their families.
It's easy to vilify Foxconn, as though “fixing” this one company would solve the dilemma for workers in that part of the world. But in all honesty, I think it’s probably one of the lesser evils in a country filled with workplace atrocities.
Technology — it may be a setting for this story, but I think its also a catalyst. Old world mindsets seem to be clashing with new world tech. These days — especially in the mobile sector — success is often reliant on rushing to market, using manufacturing technologies that emphasize speed (therefore demanding greater output) to bring consumers their gadgets faster than ever before. But when it meets head-on with a Far Eastern culture that traditionally prizes the work ethic and mindfulness, the result can be a clash of epic proportions. Suddenly ideas, dreams, and hopes wind up bashing themselves against an unrelenting standard like waves on the rocks.
Even the hardest worker would find it tough to remain hopeful in the face of 12, 14 or 16+ hours on an assembly line, unable to talk, and doing brain-numbing work for weeks, months, years on end. That pace can be tough to shake, even during off hours. Foxconn workers are often found hurriedly walking, even eating, on their down time.
I have never been to the Far East, but my Korean parents are rooted in eastern philosophy. And as I’ve written before, my childhood was peppered with sayings like, “The nail that sticks out is the first one to get hammered down.” I was raised to work hard and sacrifice for a better life, and punished whenever I wasn’t mindful of what I was doing. My parents believed this was the path to a good life, a better one than what they had. For their part, they lived those words. My father ran a business in Philadelphia, and my parents worked more than 12 hours a day, every day of the week, struggling to take care of it, their employees and their family. They did this for decades, with hardly any rest. They wanted better for me.
Here in America — as well as the bigger Chinese cities — people adopt a more modern lifestyle, and they would probably not stand for this kind of treatment. But in the Chinese countryside and outlying towns, where many of Foxconn’s workers come from, the “old ways” are still at play. And in a scenario that drops people into a speed factory like this to become a cog in the machine and little else, it’s not hard to see how the human (and humane) factors can get “lost in translation.”
As for the employees who ended their lives — no one can know for sure what was going through their minds. There may be some observers who wonder why they felt there was no other way out, like just quitting. I can only imagine that, for some of them, they may have possibly felt that whatever benefits were paid to their families made them worth more dead than alive. (In a traditional sense, ending your life in service to your family can actually be considered a noble act. I know, it’s a strange and foreign way of thinking. And many modern Asians don’t really subscribe to this, but it’s a rather strong historical facet of Far Eastern culture that still resonates with some people.)
The situation is tragic. And not easily solved, even if someone waved a magic wand over Foxconn and poof! It transformed into a model of a humane organization. But it also doesn’t mean that attempts shouldn’t be made. To that end, Nokia, Sony, Apple, Dell, and HP — the companies that contract work with Foxconn — are all concerned about this situation and have vowed to look into the behavior and corporate responsibility of their vendor.