Unresolved Suicide Cases at Foxconn in the Era of Shenzhen’s Urbanism
A university-led report revealed illegal overtime for which factory workers at Foxconn Shenzhen were unable to receive statutory compensation, extensive employment of teenage students, and failures to report industrial injuries, describing their working environment as “inhuman and abusive”, according to the South China Morning Post.
Set up as the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at the onset of Deng’s Reform and Opening Up policy in 1979, Shenzhen has transformed from a fishing village of two thousand to China’s frontier city with more than 18 million residents. Since 2010, it has also situated Foxconn, the biggest manufacturing partner of iPhone, in numerous assertions of labor abuses followed by cases of workplace suicides and student protests.
In his new book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, Brian Merchant recounts a visit to Foxconn in Shenzhen in detail, bypassing the oftentimes curated ones to selected parts of the factory, an environment that he describes as “oppressively subdued.” Attempts to penetrate the reality of a workers’ life within the factory, although lacking statistical evidences in the number of collected samples, have lead Merchant to conclude that systematic cruelty has been perceived as Foxconn’s management culture.
The factory is, according to interviews with dozens among the estimated 450,000 workers, a culture of “high-stress work, anxiety and humiliation” that “contributes to widespread depression”which partially results from management’s consistent failures to make promised improvements in the abusive working conditions for the workers.
The large dormitory complexes, observes Merchant, “complete with cagelike fences built over the roof and the windows,” is a managerial but largely futile effort to prevent suicide. They house workers who are mainly college-age kids seeking employment opportunities and a better life in the city. Recent scholarship also expounds on the regressing environment of factories in post-reform China, in which skills are replaced by meaningless production works, workers’ welfare by minimal wages, and the relative political equality before marketization by cadre’s corruption and abuse of power.
The concept of Karl Polanyi’s “fictitious commodity” is borrowed to explain the process through which factory labor has transformed into a commodity, the utility of which needs to be reproduced at a level that can be exploited and maintained at the same time.
Viewing in the context of Foxconn, the hukou system in China has been increasingly exploited at a cost of rapid urbanization. On the one hand, rural lands are assigned to migrant workers seeking employment in the city, and they substitute for residency in the city which their minimal wages are unable to afford.
However, these workers are often compelled to return and continue to work in the city, as their wages become the main source of contribution to the local economies as well as individual households. Perhaps this explains the lack of follow-up and workers’ willingness to work at Foxconn “despite knowing from reports of poor conditions before joining.”