The Foxconn Reality: "Better" Is Still BadS

Week after week we hear Foxconn horror stories, but Apple's gadget metropolis is just one place inside an enormous country. Detractors say it's inhumane; defenders say it's way above the norm. But what does "bad" really mean inside a Chinese factory? Let's put Foxconn in context.

The latest appraisal of Foxconn comes from ABC's Nightline. But a heavily supervised, made-for-TV tour belies the full picture. In fact, at such a brisk television pace, you might think the whole operation looks pretty decent. But decent compared to what? Foxconn's not in a vacuum—it's one symptom of an unwell working nation.

According to popular reports from Gizmodo, the New York Times, and others, Foxconn workers have to put up with gratuitous psychological and physical strains. They sleep packed into bunk beds, share communal sinks in large numbers, and repeatedly execute the same menial, manual tasks to the point of physical exhaustion. One paragraph from the Times gives you as much as you need, really:

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

Dangerous, tiring, monotonous, and legally suspect. This isn't just the state of Foxconn—it's the state of Chinese manufacturing. Dubious conditions are the societal norm, explains AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council Executive Director Robert Baugh. Regulations mandating decent wages, safety, and overall wellbeing are sparse and sparsely enforced: "To say they're lax in China is a complete understatement," explains Baugh. Human rights abuses in industrial China are "widespread," and subjugated workers have little recourse beyond an unfriendly court system, abject poverty, or suicide. Baugh says the rationale is simple: money. Working assemblers as hard as possible, even if to the point of wearing them out entirely, is a "financial incentive in place for employers," crucial to "their ability to operate and make massive profits."

And this goes well beyond Foxconn. Obviously it's in Baugh's best interests to keep as many jobs in the US as possible, and Chinese manufacturing is his primary threat. But his assessment is backed up by neutral parties like labor watchdog Verité, which lamented the brutish status quo and anemic regulatory body across China in a report earlier this month:

At one factory in China, workers worked continuously for 20 days without a day off with 70 - 80 total work hours per week.

At an electronics facility, whenever a 10-minute break is over, the line leader shouts at workers and threatens that if they do not return to their work immediately, they will be disciplined or not paid. Workers described this to Verité as "hurrying us to work as if driving pigs."

A worker at a garment factory in China told the Verité team that he did not have a day off for the whole month because the line was extremely busy, and the section even worked overtime until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. Before the Verité audit, workers were told by the factory's public address system to give standard answers to our auditors, saying they never work lots of overtime, and that they end work around 7:00 p.m.

Verité concludes that the entire Chinese factory universe is endemically ill:

Every factory is pressured to produce more with less...Workers are pressured to work in violation of the law, in violation of corporate Codes and at risk to themselves...Excessive work hours are a serious concern at manufacturing facilities in China. Verité routinely encounters factory work schedules that violate China law on work hours and customer Codes of Conduct. The examples above are extreme, but not rare...

And then there's Foxconn, with its housing, cafeterias, and web cafes. Verité says that, because of the sophisticated products spilling out, "by design Foxconn is safer than other manufacturing in China." And hey, they just got a 25% raise. This must be a relatively plumb job, right?

Not really.

Those dorms? Not only must workers pay for the privilege of being stuffed into them, but they're a mechanism of control more than an accommodation. An enterprise as sprawling as Foxconn's begins to replace the government itself. So when it comes to putting pillows under drained heads, it's not a matter of humanity: "They simply have to," explains Baugh. "So many of the people who work in these facilities are people who come from the countryside, and there isn't housing for them. It's in [Foxconn's] own self-interest to be able to have to the people there and available for work." Corporations like Foxconn have to provide housing, because the cities rural workers flock to in order to build iPhones and Wiis are "overwhelmed"—the glut of bodies can only be spun into productivity if they're provided for. Moreover, Baugh says, "it makes workers dependent." If your bed and doctor are coming straight from your boss, who are you to consider quitting? Where will you sleep?

Amenities are just another means of squeezing every fingertip drop out of workers, agrees Micki Maynard, author, former auto manufacturing reporter for the NY Times, and 21st century industrialization expert. Company housing means "they expect you to be available"—for instance, the night Foxconn woke 8,000 workers in the middle of the night to crank out glass iPhone displays, an act Baugh rightfully labels "disgusting." There's no escaping your job when your job is your house—you just need to stay through it long enough for a fantasized payoff: "You grew up in your village, you weren't going to go to college, you have your family, you saw the way that they grew up, you go [to Foxconn] for three years, you live in housing, you then can go home and have a comfortable life," explains Maynard.

But in the meantime, criticize the working conditions for those who put your iPhone together, tiny piece by tiny piece, and it's likely you'll get hit with some variant of this threadbare counterpoint: Well, by Chinese standards, it's actually pretty good. Did you know they get free housing? And they're sure better off than they are back in their village.

We've already established that "by Chinese standards" doesn't mean much. And the Workers could always have it worse! fallacy, that it's somehow acceptable to cheer a man sleeping in a slum because he isn't sleeping in the mud, might go back farther in time, but it was put forth in its most racist, salient form 236 years ago, by Scottish philosopher and OG factory cheerleader Adam Smith:

Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, [a common worker's] accommodation must no doubt appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute masters of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

In short: Don't ever whine about your job—you could be living in the jungle. Thanks, Adam.

But this is specious reasoning at its best, and, over two centuries later, it's still with us. China lacks virtually every safeguard won by the American labor movement, because it's never been allowed a labor movement. Even in an economy of diminishing slots, workers in the US are guaranteed a 40 hour work week, with defined overtime benefits, an entire regulatory apparatus to oversee and enforce safety, and the right to unionize against employers. It's by no means a perfect system, but it's one that allows—or at least, allowed—Americans to make careers out of assembly, rather than trade the plow for the 'Pod. No such luck in China. Foxconn may be slightly better than the worst Chinese factories or destitute subsistence farming villages, but eating five nails instead of fifteen is still awful.