Scandals spread faster than advertisements. Lying on the lower end of the value chain, Foxconn could not have otherwise caught so much attention from the international media. But despite highly concentrated media accusations against Foxconn, the rate of suicide within the company, 20-30 per million workers, is still lower than the national average of 140 per million people. Comparing internationally, the suicide rate of Japan during its economic takeoff was around 250 per million and that of South Korea 260 per million.
This is not so much intended to excuse Foxconn from its scandal, but to draw attention to its broader background and implication. Workers’ salaries and working conditions are undoubtedly one important side of the story, but it is also necessary to reckon with the other side, that is, the need for an apparatus to ease workers’ adaptation to the lifestyle as workers of the manufacturing sector.
The manufacturing and assembly sector is often the least profitable, most polluting and most exploitative part of the value chain, and is increasingly outsourced to emerging economies. Standardized manufacturing makes precision the chief concern of management. The Toyota Model, one of the most successful models of management of high-quality manufacturing, consists of the breaking down of the production line into infinitely small steps each performed by ultra-specialized workers. In other words, the unbearably repetitive nature of Foxconn workers stems not so much from Foxconn’s mistreatment of its employees, but from the nature of high-quality manufacturing management.
The nature of the job may be particularly shocking to Chinese workers. Besides being an industrial worker, each Chinese worker is also an owner and manager of a plot of land in the countryside. Traditionally working as mini-familial entrepreneurs taking charge of all of purchasing, production and marketing, the switch to repetitive manufacturing tasks, though materially beneficial, is in no sense a realization of their full potential. Furthermore, most export factories hire an either predominantly male or predominantly female workforce according to the nature of the job, making it difficult for workers to bring their families near the working site. The living cost in urban areas is too high for low wage immigrant workers to support their families. Coupled with an acute lack of public investment or inter-provincial governmental coordination, making cheap and quality education, social security and health service unaffordable or unavailable to immigrant workers and their family members, a typical worker in the export sector leaves his or her parents, children and spouse back in the countryside. Isolated from their traditional social network, immigrant workers can hardly find a channel to vent or relieve their pressure.
Here the significance of freedom of association comes in. Formal and informal workers’ organizations, which may range from unions and guilds to mahjong friends, are intended not only to struggle for workers’ rights but also to help them establish a new social network to replace the traditional one. To transform the workplace from one where workers do not know each other to one where they are friends of each other has to be in the agenda of union leaders. Ultimately, China has to do away with the strange phenomenon of “immigrant workers,” both through more equitable cross-regional economic development and through public investment in the more developed provinces to fully integrate workers and their families into the community they work in. In the short run, nevertheless, workers’ associations may have to shoulder the responsibility.