China: exploitation and resistance in the "world's sweatshop"

Submitted by Matthew on 10 June, 2010 - 3:11 Author: Ira Berkovic

When the arch-Tory newspaper the Daily Telegraph runs exposés of working conditions in your factory, you should know something is up. Terry Gou, the 59-year old Chinese billionaire who owns Foxconn, must be a little shaken-up.

Foxconn is one of the world’s biggest technology companies, producing components for blue-chip giants such as Dell, Sony and HP. Its highest-profile client is Apple, for whom it produces iPhones, iPods and iPads. It has become the centre of a recent scandal after several workers committed suicide (with others making suicide attempts), unable to cope with the pressure of meeting over-demanding new orders.

This year alone, 12 workers have died following jumps from high windows. A further 16 have attempted suicide with a further 20 being stopped by the company before they were able to make a suicide attempt.

According to an investigation into conditions in Foxconn’s mammoth Longhua plant (a factory-city where nearly 400,000 workers live and and work), “Hundreds of people work in the workshops but they are not allowed to talk to each other. If you talk, you get a black mark in your record and you get shouted at by your manager. You can also be fined […] The machines keep moving and the staff have to keep up. The workers need practice to become really efficient, and with a heavy churn of new staff, they cannot adapt. In the past three months, the factory has been losing 50,000 staff a month because workers are burning out.”

Average overtime over the past year was 120 hours per month per worker, meaning that the average working week for a Foxconn worker is around 70 hours. For this toil, they receive a basic wage of just £90 (900 Yuan) per month — an average hourly basic wage of well under £1 per hour.

Foxconn has now begun locking doors and windows in its plant and dormitory buildings to prevent further suicide attempts — a move which has an alarming precedent in the history of sweatshop exploitation. In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York caught fire and, because of management’s practise of keeping all exits locked, over 100 workers were killed in what was, until 9/11, the single worst workplace disaster in American history.

Foxconn’s Longhua plant combines the technological prowess of globalised late-capitalism with the sheer brutality and inhumanity that was exposed in early industrial capitalism and which has necessarily remained at its heart ever since. A veneer of benevolence (Foxconn provides leisure facilities for its live-in workers, many of whom are villagers who have come to Longhua looking for stable work) hides the reality that Foxconn’s workers — like the products they’re making – are nothing more than means to an end for Apple; that end is profit.

The Longhua plant might not be a dingy basement factory producing garments, but it is still, to all intents and purposes, a sweatshop; modern globalised capitalism stripped down to its basic nucleus, the ceaseless drive to accumulate profit by exploiting wage-labour.

China’s ruling bureaucracy, combining Stalinism and capitalist market-worship, clamps down on any expression of independent workers’ organisation.

Trade unions not endorsed by official state labour fronts are illegal and working-class dissidents are routinely imprisoned. Against such a backdrop, it is not difficult to understand why workers felt that jumping from a high window was the only response to super-exploitation available to them.

But, as a 2,000-strong strike of Chinese Honda workers shows, it is possible for workers to organise and take action even in the most difficult of circumstances. Honda’s Chinese operations are run jointly with the state, with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions acting as a police force for management and government bureaucrats. Workers have succeeded in organising independently of the ACFTU, and their strike has so far resulted in an offer of a 24% pay increase from management (they began the strike demanding 30%).

Unfortunately, there are some on the left who still see the Chinese state as representing some kind of progressive alternative to capitalism. The CPGB-ML (whose leaders also run the “Stalin Society”, aimed at rehabilitating the reputation of “Uncle Joe”) might be a lunatic ultra-Stalinist fringe, but more respect-worthy figures like Bob Crow have also been known to appear at “Hands Off China” events.

The Foxconn suicides and the Honda strike should give those people pause; China is not a valiant and embattled workers’ government, attempting to construct an island of socialism in a capitalist sea. It is a major industrial-capitalist-imperialist power itself, whose state bureaucracy works hand in glove with some of the most exploitative multinational corporations on earth to wring Chinese workers for every last cent of profit that can be made, even if it means driving them to their deaths.

The Foxconn workers were not really suicides; they were killed by capitalism. The Honda workers are beginning to show how things might be different.

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