Foxconn Plant Open, But Broader Issues Persist

Foxconn’s Taiyuan plant reopened on Tuesday morning after closing due to a worker riot, and the company expects little impact to production as it gets back to the business of assembling electronics for the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo and Sony (Apple’s iPhone is made in Foxconn factories elsewhere in China). But while Foxconn has denied that the Sunday evening melee was work-related, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos explores what it says about the broader labor situation in China:

If Chinese factory workers are feeling frustrated with life, that is likely to get worse before it gets better, as the economy faces a volatile period captured in an August story in Southern Weekend headlined “The First Layoff in the Last Ten Years.”

The riot at Foxconn—or any of the other five hundred “mass incidents” that China records on an average day—has implications far beyond Apple. Labor activists say that they are happening more often this year than last. A little over a week ago, six thousand workers at a Flextronics Technology factory in Shanghai went on strike for severance pay. In June, it was a hundred workers in a mini-uproar at another Foxconn plant. They are no longer simply calling for better wages. “Many of the protests this year appear to be related to the country’s economic slowdown, as employees demand the payment of overdue wages from financially struggling companies, or insist on compensation when money-losing factories in coastal provinces are closed and moved to lower-cost cities in the interior,” as the Times put it.

It was largely business as usual on Tuesday, writes The Financial Times’ Kathrin Hille, but observers say that more issues will likely resurface despite Foxconn’s attempts to improve conditions. Her interviews revealed many of the work-related frustrations of employees at the Taiyuan plant, from the obvious (unpaid wages to lack of overtime during the upcoming National Day holiday) to the less-than-obvious:

Another staff member, who asked not to be named, says many felt inspired by the anti-Japanese protests across the country earlier this month.

“It is so rare in China that you can demonstrate when you’re unhappy about something. It felt like the right moment,” he says.

In an interview with Gawker, China labor scholar Eli Friedman spoke at length about evolving labor conditions in China, including the ongoing shift in geographic concentration by companies such as Foxconn:

The major thing that Foxconn has done, which is to some extent indicative of a broader trend, is a lot of capital relocation from these coastal areas, like Shanghai and Shenzhen, into the interior. They’re doing that for that a number of reasons: the cost of labor and land are cheaper. In the interior the local governments are more excited about trying to attract investment—if you’re in Sichuan Province on the west, you’d get more tax breaks; you get the government mobilized to try and find workers for you. So a lot of these factories are moving into the interior.

Workers will now, to a greater extent, be living in the same place they work. Whereas now migrant workers come from interior and western provinces to the coast. And when they’re in these big cities in the coastal areas they don’t have access to public goods like education, health care, housing and subsidies. But if they’re back in the interior, they might be more in their own community, and things might be a little bit more stable.