Page 4 of 5 Apple et al create new working class
By Jenny Chan, Ngai Pun and Mark Selden
Soon after the September 2012 protest, a 21-year-old high-school graduate with two years' work experience at Foxconn Taiyuan wrote an open letter to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou and circulated it on weblogs (the following excerpt is translated by the authors):
A Letter to Foxconn CEO, Terry Gou -
If you don't wish to again be loudly woken at night from deep sleep,
If you don't wish to constantly rush about again by airplane,
If you don't wish to again be investigated by the Fair Labor Association,
If you don't wish your company to again be called by people a sweatshop,
Please use the last bit of a humanitarian eye to observe us.
Please allow us the last bit of human self-esteem.
Don't let your hired ruffians hunt for our bodies and belongings,
Don't let your hired ruffians harass female workers,
Don't let your lackeys take every worker for the enemy,
Don't arbitrarily berate or, worse, beat workers for one little error.
In the densely populated factory-cum-dormitory setting, many rural migrant workers as young as 16 or 17 years old spoke of their involvement in collective labor protests (Pun and Chan, 2013). If the language of strikes and worker participation is new for some, it is not for others. The testimony of a teenage female worker at Foxconn's Shenzhen Longhua plant is illustrative:
I didn't know that it was a strike. One day my co-workers stopped work, ran out of the workshop and assembled on the grounds. I followed them. They had disputes over the under-reporting of overtime hours and the resulting underpayment of overtime wages. After half a day, the human resources managers agreed to look into the problems and promised to pay the back wages if there was a company mistake. At night, in the dormitory, our "big sister" explained to me that I had participated in a strike (Interview, 15 October 2011)!
The wildcat strikes and labor protests at Foxconn form part of a broader spectrum of labor action throughout China over recent decades (Pringle, 2013). The Taiyuan worker's open letter to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou closes with the following paragraph:
You should understand that working in your factories, workers live on the lowest level of Chinese society,
tolerating the highest work intensity, earning the lowest pay, accepting the strictest regulation,
and enduring discrimination everywhere.
Even though you are my boss, and I am a worker: I have the right to speak to you on an equal footing.
The sense in which "right" is used is not narrowly confined to that of legal right. Chinese workers, facing pressure from the company, the local state and their own union, are demanding to bargain with their employers "on an equal footing". They are calling for dignified treatment and respect at work and for a living wage.
Marx and Engels ( 2002: 223) analyzed capital's irresistible impulse to create new markets globally. "All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries? ... ?In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants? ... "
Production, distribution and consumption must continue in perpetuity if profits are to be made and capital accumulated. Barriers to trade at all levels have to be drastically reduced. In the 21st century, consumer electronics has grown to become one of the leading global industries, and Chinese labor is central to its development.
An ever quicker and newer product release, accompanied by shorter product finishing time, places new pressures on outsourced factory workers in the Apple production network. At the workplace level, very short delivery times imposed by Foxconn in response to the demands of Apple and other multinational corporations make it difficult for suppliers to comply with legal overtime limits. Price pressures lead firms to compromise workers' health and safety and the provision of a decent living wage.
The absence of fundamental labor rights within the global production regime driven by Apple and its principal supplier Foxconn have become a central concern for Chinese rural migrant workers, who form the core of the most rapidly growing sector of the new industrial working class.
The integration of Asian manufacturers in global and regional production networks, tight delivery schedules for coveted products, and the growing shortage of young workers as a result of China's demographic changes have enhanced workers' bargaining power. The ascent of "global neoliberal capitalism" has created "opportunities for counter-organization" (Evans, 2010: 352), as attested not only by the rise of transnational labor movements and global anti-sweatshop campaigns but specifically by growing labor unrest in China.
Increasingly aware of the opportunities presented by the demand by Apple and other technology giants to meet quotas for new models and holiday season purchases, workers have come together at the dormitory, workshop or factory level to voice demands. Internet and social networking technology enables workers to disseminate open letters and urgent appeals for support (Qiu, 2009).
The question remains whether workers will be able to win the right to freedom of association and ultimately strengthen a nascent labor movement that is capable of challenging the unfettered power of capital in a milieu in which fundamental labor rights such as the right to strike are lacking.
A historical counterweight to global capital, West and East, exists in workers' and civil society's response. Under public pressure, in February 2013, Foxconn proclaimed that workers would hold direct elections for union representatives. If implemented fairly, and if the unions are organized to uphold the rights enshrined in the Chinese Trade Union Law, Labor Contract Law and the international labor conventions, this would impact upon the balance of power between management and workers.
At present, the vast labor force at Foxconn and many workplaces are striving to expand social and economic rights, bypassing the state- and management-controlled unions. A new generation of workers, above all rural migrant workers, is standing up to assert their dignity and rights.
Workers' direct actions have been perceived by political leaders and elites as so threatening to social stability that government and employers have been forced to grant certain policy concessions, including higher wages, and to propose higher minimum wages. The Chinese state is also seeking to raise domestic consumption and hence living standards, in part in response to the struggle of aggrieved workers and farmers (Hung, 2009; Carrillo and Goodman, 2012).
Apple and Foxconn now find themselves in a limelight that challenges their corporate images and symbolic capital, hence requiring at least lip service in support of progressive labor policy reforms. If the new generation of Chinese workers succeeds in building autonomous unions and worker organizations, their struggles will shape the future of labor and democracy not only in China but throughout the world.
1. Foxconn's parent corporation is Taipei-based Hon Hai Precision Industry Company. The trade name Foxconn alludes to the corporation's ability to produce electronic connectors at nimble “fox-like” speed.
2. Gu and Cai (2011) conclude that Chinese fertility is presently 1.6 children per woman, down from around 2.5 children per woman in the 1980s. In the next few years the number of young laborers aged 20 to 24 years will peak. China's 2010 Population Census, moreover, showed that the age group 0-14 comprised 16.6 percent of the total population, down 6.29 percent compared with the 2000 census data.
3. The National Bureau of Statistics has acknowledged that the gender imbalance had reached 119:100 in 2009 before dipping slightly to just under 118:100 in 2010. The 2011 data reported 117.78 baby boys for every 100 girls (China Daily, 2012).
4. Foxconn's revenues or net sales increased from US$51.8 billion in 2007 (Foxconn Technology Group, 2009: 11) to US$131 billion in 2012 (Foxconn Technology Group, 2013b). During the same period, the net sales of Apple soared from US$24.6 billion (Apple, 2011: 24) to US$156.5 billion (Apple, 2012a: 24).
Jenny Chan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate, Great Britain-China Educational Trust Awardee and Reid Research Scholar in the Faculty of History and Social Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London. She was Chief Coordinator (2006-2009) of Hong Kong-based labor rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM).
Ngai Pun (email@example.com) is Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Deputy Director in the China Social Work Research Center at Peking University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Mark Selden (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University, Coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal and Professor Emeritus of History and Sociology at State University of New York, Binghamton.
The authors have jointly written a book entitled Separate Dreams: Apple, Foxconn and a New Generation of Chinese Workers (Ngai Pun, Jenny Chan and Mark Selden, forthcoming).
We are very grateful to Phil Taylor, Debra Howcroft and four reviewers for their insightful comments. We also thank the independent University Research Group on Foxconn, SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior), GoodElectronics Network, Jeffery Hermanson, Gregory Fay, Chris Smith, Jos Gamble and Sukhdev Johal. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Center for East Asian Studies in the University of Bristol on November 15, 2012, where Jenny Chan enjoyed constructive discussions with Jeffrey Henderson and the seminar's participants.