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Why Foxconn Should Serve As An Example

Michelle Toh |
December 12, 2012 | 10:18 a.m. PST

Assistant News Editor

A Foxconn assembly line in 2005 (Prachatai, Creative Commons)
A Foxconn assembly line in 2005 (Prachatai, Creative Commons)
Since 2009, Taiwanese technology giant Honhai Precision Industry Co., commonly known as Foxconn, has been the subject of intense scrutiny for worker exploitation and unfair labor practices. Known as the world's biggest electronics manufacturer, Foxconn has been primarily publicized in the Western media for nearly four years for a spate of suicides on company property, employee beatings, underage workers and a riot involving as many as 2,000 workers.

Since the 1970s, more than an estimated 150 million Chinese workers have moved from the countryside to the increasingly industrialized cities, composing the largest human migration in history. As a collective, they represent the backbone of China's exporting industry and arguably the most sophisticated manufacturing system on earth, touching the lives of millions of consumers.

In the novel "Factory Girls," former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie T. Chang wrote: "“Workers were required to stay six months, and even then permission to quit was not always granted. That was a fact of factory life you couldn’t know from the outside: Getting into a factory was easy. The hard part was getting out.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on Dec. 11 that the company was experiencing difficulty in their transition to integrate robots into the assembly lines. Gou first announced his intent to replace one million workers with the automated "Foxbots" in 2011, stirring up a variety of responses. "There are a couple of ways to spin the news that Foxconn Electronics Inc. is replacing Chinese workers with robots," Barbara Jorgensen wrote on EBN.com, a website for supply chain professionals. The first is admittedly the most cynical: Robots don't complain about lousy working conditions, and they don't commit suicide. Maybe all that nasty PR about exploiting workers will go away."

"Here's the more moderate reaction: Foxconn is leveling the playing field for global manufacturing."

Chang argues that the media has focused too much on the attempt to expose scandal and not enough on the "ordinary workers" who saw their jobs as opportunity. "Factory work is an informed choice, not a desperate response to poverty," she wrote in a CNN op-ed.

It is worth noting that Foxconn has increased its workers' salaries by 25 percent, another possible factor in the decision to begin automating the manufacturing process. On Dec. 6, Apple also announced that they would be bringing some manufacturing jobs to the U.S.

New York Times economic reporter Catherine Rampell said the converging wage gap was a reason for the move, also citing the positive publicity, lower energy prices in America, lack of protection of intellectual property, quality control and supply chain issues as motivations.

Relatively speaking, iMacs account for a small part of Apple’s business. "The Mac is a low-volume product that is irrelevant to shares," global manufacturing expert and University of Manchester Professor Karel Williams told CNN. "That means this is a PR move."

“The big question is seeing whether they’re going to be making iPhones… I think a lot of people are going to be skeptical in hearing this news,” said Larry Ingrassia, Business Editor of the New York Times. He added that this was “a first step” and “symbolic,” and that Apple could serve as a model for other companies.

Apple later announced that the number of jobs it would be bringing to the U.S. was only 200.

In a TED talk given last year, Chang, who spent two years examining factory conditions in the city of Dongguan, pointed out a “played-up” relationship emphasized between workers and the products of their labor. “This is a conversation that often brings up a lot of guilt… I recently wrote an article in The New Yorker magazine, but I can’t afford to buy an ad in it,” she said. “Who cares? I don’t want an ad in The New Yorker, and most of these workers don’t really want iPhones.”

This is not to downplay the living and working conditions of Foxconn, and the guilt can in large part be attributed to the newfound awareness of a story behind appliances that are becoming increasingly applicable to a tech-happy 21st century. Despite its supplier's unfavorable reputation, Apple has been reported to be the world's most valuable company of all time, and the corporation has done a remarkably good job of preserving its public image, especially when it comes to the story of the iPhone. In the last fiscal quarter alone, Apple sold 26.9 million iPhones, "exceeding Wall Street's estimate of 25 million, and up 58 percent from the same quarter [from the] last year," according to CNET.com. Ask a college student if he or she knows the story of Steve Jobs' innovations, and chances are he or she will be able to spout a quote from Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford. Ask that same person if he or she has heard of Foxconn, or Terry Gou, and you will in all likelihood get a blank expression in response.

So, who is Terry Gou? Terry Gou is the CEO of Foxconn. He ranks 55th on Forbes' most recent Powerful Players list. He is the fourth richest man in all of Taiwan.

Gou is also the person who, in the midst of the suicide scandal in 2010, said, "I am working for society, I am working for my employees." It was under his leadership that a 24-hour counseling program was launched and safety nets were instituted. This January, it was also he who likened his employees to "one million animals."

While no one person is to blame for Foxconn's every trouble, accountability should be taken for the series of misfortunes that have surrounded the supply chain giant, and even after three years of bad press, it seems no one is ready to take it. To some, this stagnation may be seen as relatively common in China, a nation that has a history of relatively lax regulation resulting in neglected human rights - not only by the state, but also by ordinary individuals.

In 2011, a two-year-old girl in Dongguan was run over by not one - but two - vans, and then ignored by 18 passers-by as she lay on the ground unconscious and bleeding. It was like a cruel social experiment, except there was nothing good to come from it - the girl was later pronounced dead and the entire incident was caught on video. This October, kindergarten teachers in China came under heat for abusing their students, with one shown picking up a boy by his ears in a photograph and the other in a video slapping several children repeatedly for over 10 minutes. Both stories circulated online for weeks and sparked national outrage.

Even worse, the first teacher never faced charges. “Under current law, the crime of abusing children pertains to someone who abuses a family member, thus the kindergarten teacher is excluded from conviction of that charge,” Liming Cai, director of the judicial department of the public security bureau in Wenling, told Xinhua News Agency.

The incidents brought to light the problems of unqualified teachers and schools operating illegally. Teng Linhua, Vice Director of the Wenling Education Bureau, told China Daily that "all teachers at private and public schools must have qualifications before being hired."

He also admitted that only 40 percent of kindergarten teachers in Wenling were properly qualified.

Of course, mistreatment happens everywhere, regardless of legislation. In November 2012, a video surfaced of an autistic child being choked by a special needs worker on a school bus in Florida while the driver watched on laughing. This Huffington Post gallery alone will direct you to over a dozen newscasts with similar stories in the U.S.  

Furthermore, there has been a significant progression of human rights in China over the past decade, particularly with regard to the opening up of the media to the West after the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the increasingly capitalized economy. In this aspect, globalization has proved to play an important role in China's societal changes. 

This is why Foxconn is so important. It is the world's largest electronics manufacturer in the world, its employees representing the largest human migration of all time. As Ingrassia said, the company can stand to serve as a model to others - and so it should.

Reach Assistant News Editor Michelle Toh here.



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