Sunday, 6 June 2010

Suicides and militancy in China's class conflict

Workers at Foxconn, a Chinese company that makes electronics and computer parts, have just been awarded a 30% pay rise. The downside to this seemingly generous pay award, "to assist the company in staff retention and staff recruitment," is that it comes after news coverage of the number of worker suicides in the plant.

The Chinese press are amongst those who have blamed the suicides on the horrendous working conditions at the factory.

The South China Morning Post opines that "workers on the mainland should be treated properly by the companies that make the products we buy." Columnist Liu Shinan says "we should realise that social injustice may have reached a critical point before such large-scale incidents were triggered," whilst his paper the China Daily adds that although "Foxconn may not be a sweatshop in the sense that it physically abuses its employees or forces them to work extra hours," this "does not mean it is showing enough humanitarian concern for its employees."
The Huanqiu Shibao goes further;
When more and more post-80s, post-90s and even post-00s are entering the work force, it is unsustainable to keep relying on this low-end means of production that is built on cheap labour. The 11 Foxconn employees... used this extreme choice of jumping from buildings to tell us that they do not accept China's manufacturing industry's continued advance in this direction... Enterprises must treat and respect staff as real living human beings and not as a part of the production line.
These analyses were vindicated by Sothern Weekly reporter Liu Zhi Yi, who spent 28 days undercover at the factory. There, he found that "the factory workers live in a sort of indentured servitude" and "work all day long, stopping only to quickly eat or to sleep." With public holidays being the only break from this, "for many workers, the only escape from this cycle was to end their life."
The conclusion is "that Foxconn really needs to be more human and be concerned about the health—mental and physical—of their workers, instead of treating them like dogs."
In the event of non-accidental injuries (including suicide, self mutilation, etc.), I agree that the company has acted properly in accordance with relevant laws and regulations, and will not sue the company, bring excessive demands, take drastic actions that would damage the company's reputation or cause trouble that would hurt normal operations.
Though this, and the attempt to retract the 110,000 yuan (£11,000) compensation for suicides in favour of the "legal minimum" of nil, were scuppered by press attention.

Rather callously, Telegraph Shanghai correspondent Malcolm Moore suggests that the compensation is a "very tempting sum," and that "if these enormous payments don’t stop, the suicides are unlikely to either." This, of course, ignores the fact that the best way to end the suicides is to end the "indentured servitude" and staff bullying. As long as this goes on, the idea that "suicide is not a workplace injury, so the company is not responsible" is obscene.

Moore also suggests that "if Foxconn takes the pragmatic[!] option, there is every chance that its workers, fanned by the media, will revolt at its callousness." Here, evidence from other workers' revolts across China suggests that he is right.

Certainly, the Honda Motors strike offers Foxconn workers a more positive way to challenge appalling working conditions. It also demonstrates that the trade unions "act as the complicit of the company" and "appropriat[e] the fruits of the workers’ struggles" for themselves. Meanwhile, positive change "is the result of the tremendous pressure created by the workers’ strike and the result of the workers’ sweat and blood."

The Chinese working class need global solidarity in their struggle against the full brutality of state and capital. Moreoever, as they witness the effectiveness of rank-and-file organisation and the tendency of bureaucrats to sell them short, we would do well to learn the same lessons.