International controversy over working conditions in the south is nothing new. Western clothing brands, such as Timberland and Nike, and multinational retailers, such as Wal-Mart, that benefit from the region’s low production costs, have all attracted foreign criticism. But the deaths at Foxconn have prompted a broader debate within China itself. While the company and local authorities say personal reasons were behind each death, critics claim that a high-pressure and isolating work environment raised the risk of suicide. Across the country academics, labour advocates and young people are comparing their nation to an inhumane industrial revolution-era world dominated by the search for progress and profits.
“When I look at Foxconn, I feel reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times,” said an anonymous contributor to one online forum. “They show a world in which human beings are being degraded to gearwheels in a huge machine. Isn’t that exactly what’s happening here right now?” Another wrote: “This is not just Foxconn’s crisis, it is our crisis, our tragedy.”
Foxconn’s customers are growing nervous. Sony, which declined to comment on the suicides this week, yesterday joined HP, Dell and Apple in saying it was re-evaluating working conditions at its manufacturing partner. Analysts, however, say Foxconn is unlikely to lose orders over the incidents because the company is the backbone of the world’s electronics manufacturing system.
For Yang Lixiong of Renmin university in Beijing, the incidents illustrate part of a bigger socio-economic problem. While China has benefited from globalisation, its workers have not, he argues. “Our country is in a race to the bottom because our only advantage is cheap labour, and therefore our development is built on a mountain of sweatshops.”