Thursday, June 3, 2010

Factory Working

The press coverage of the worker suicides at Foxconn is throwing open the debate on China’s challenges as it seeks to continue its economic miracle. If you have not followed the events, last week was the eleventh time this year that one of its workers , at its factory in Shenzhen, committed suicide by jumping from his dormitory. Li Hai was only 19 years old and had worked only 42 days in the factory before he died.

Foxconn is a giant electronics assembling company. Taiwanese owned, its largest factory is in Shenzhen in China. The Shenzhen plant assembles phones for Apple, Nokia, etc etc. It is typical of the industrial might of China – the factory employs some 400,000 workers at its site in Shenzhen and they all live in the factory premises in large dormitories.Its a virtual city by itself. This is the model in China. Migrant workers come from the west to the coastal cities to work and factory complexes are in effect self contained townships. Foxconn is not typical – its huge. Most other factories in the Shenzhen belt are smaller, but the model is essentially the same.

The knee jerk reaction in the press was that the suicides were symptomatic of labour abuse in Chinese factories. But its not as pat as that, I believe. The situation is far more complex.

In the early days of China’s industrial boom, the situation at factories was appalling. Conditions were unsafe, often fatally unsafe, working conditions were horrible, physical abuse was rampant – every horror of modern industrial life, and more, was widely prevalent. But things have changed. Safety is much better. Handling poisons or being forced to inhale toxic fumes is rarer. Wages have risen. Of course there are abuses, but they are not as vicious as they were before,

But it’s a tough tough life for a factory worker. Foxconn was actually one of the better employers. Conditions were not unsafe. But it was boring monotonous work and the pressure was always high. Wages are dependent on productivity and the typical worker mindset is to make the maximum money possible. Even though official working hours are long, employees actually seek out employers who would allow them to earn overtime by working seven days a week.

Wages are low, sure, but have risen from what they used to be. The whole economic model is based on low wages. If wages rise, factories like Foxconn won’t exist. And compared to the alternative of farming in the fields, the earning potential is manifold higher – that’s why 200 million people have left the villages and come to the city for work.

It’s a profound social problem that China faces as the first sheen of economic development wears off for the migrant worker. The migrant worker is the unsung hero of China. She (most factories prefer women) has left her family and lives alone in a strange place where she can’t even speak the local dialect. She works incredibly hard. If she’s married and has a kid, she’s left the kid back with her parents and might see the child only once a year or so. The work is boring, tough, and totally insecure – there’s no such thing as permanency and attrition rates are usually 50% in the factories. At first, the allure of wealth, which could not even be dreamt of in the village, masked everything else. But then, as time goes by, the thorns come out. Its not all that rosy.

Something exactly like this happened just after the Industrial revolution in Britain. Its happening again in China.

I strongly recommend a superb book – Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang. It opens your eyes to the good, the bad and the ugly of the factory world of China. There’s both the good and the bad – in real life the answers are not so simple. It’s a complex and tough world out there.