Letter from China

Issue section: 
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After the recent suicides of ten Foxconn workers, Li Qiang reports on conditions at the iPhone sweatshop.

Yet another Foxconn worker jumped to his death in June, bringing the total number of suicides at the company this year to ten. In the light of these events, some have denounced Foxconn, makers of Apple's iPad and iPhone, as a "sweatshop". Others argue that, compared to similar manufacturers, Foxconn can boast relatively humane management and fairly good benefits.

I believe all factories that overlook the basic needs of their workers to put profits first are sweatshops, and Foxconn clearly fits this model. In an investigation of Foxconn, conducted by China Labor Watch, we learned first hand of the intense pressure under which Foxconn production line workers are forced to operate. Moreover, because Foxconn's basic salary of 900 renminbi (£89) per month is insufficient to cover basic living expenses in its home city of Shenzhen, workers have no choice but to work massive amounts of overtime to support themselves and their families.

On average, workers in this department are required to perform a separate work-related task every seven seconds, each one demanding their complete attention. Over a ten-hour shift they are required to assemble 4,000 computers. As one worker argued, "We work every day to be faster than a machine." In 2008 Foxconn exported $55.6 billion of products from China. With approximately 800,000 employees on the mainland, and each employee earning an average salary of $150 per month, Foxconn's total payroll expenditures for that year amounted to $1.44 billion - just 2.6 percent of all consumer sales from China.

Clearly, workers' rights are trampled for the sake of profits at Foxconn, and it is indeed a sweatshop. This is not determined through a process of "comparison". The fact that, compared to similar manufacturers, Foxconn has "fairly good benefits" cannot conceal the fact that it is, in the end, a sweatshop - one with a management style and philosophy that devalue workers' contributions.

Yet to merely criticise sweatshops will never solve the problem. For a long time we have ignored the fundamental issue of China's economic development model. China's development is measured largely by the speed of its economic growth, completely discounting the contribution of workers to the outcome which they help achieve. Following China's deepening participation in the global economy, this trend has only intensified.

No one is created solely to work. Work is a way to realise one's own self-worth and to enjoy the material benefits of one's labour. Under the current economic development model, China's rapidly growing economy cannot even guarantee workers' basic human needs, to say nothing of providing a sense of purpose.

Two factors have created this situation. The first is a sole focus on profits while ignoring workers' basic needs. China's economic development has been propped up by the long hours and low wages of millions of workers. The second is China's highly inequitable distribution system. Profits from manufacturing indirectly flow into the financial system, real estate and other industries and foreign companies. At the same time, China's workers struggle to afford basic food and clothing. A small favoured group consumes large quantities of luxury items at the expense of the mass of impoverished workers.

Economic development must go hand in hand with comprehensive development overall. China's workers, who have made great contributions to the country's economic development, must be able to work with dignity and enjoy the fruits of their labour. The Foxconn situation reflects the biases and inadequacies inherent in the current Chinese economic development model. The suicides of the ten Foxconn workers have made this painfully obvious, standing as a silent protest to the shortcomings of this system.

If this economic development model is unable to realise the value of its workers, sadly, Foxconn will not be the only sweatshop driving workers to their deaths and suicide will not be the most shocking form of protest workers adopt.

Li Qiang is founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, a New York based non-profit organisation that promotes labour rights in China.