Foxconn Workers Speak: We Are Treated Worse Than Machines

Compiled by Surendra Pratap, Venkatachandrika Radhakrishnan and Madhumitta Dutta

Foxconn Technology Group is presently the world’s biggest contract electronics manufacturer, taking in over 50% of global electronics manufacturing and service industry revenue. Foxconn operates more than 40 manufacturing facilities and Research and Development centres in Asia, Russia, Europe, and the Americas. Its accumulated revenues for January to September 2010 reached NT$1.95 trillion (US$60.82 billion), up nearly 63% on the previous year—larger than some of the companies for which it manufacturers products such as Microsoft and Nokia, by the rankings of the Global Fortune 500 companies.1  The same trend continued in 2011 also.

Foxconn fell into the media spotlight in the first half of last year (2010 due to the spate of suicides of its young workers at its huge production factory in mainland China. In response to the scandal of the worker suicides, Steve Jobs was pushed to state that ‘Foxconn is not a sweatshop’. For some period, the scandal of the suicides raised debate about whether the work conditions were indeed poor or not; apologists for global supply chains strained themselves to proclaim the work and living conditions at Foxconn as ‘fine for the Chinese’ and the suicides as ‘below the national average’. (See also Regional Roundup – China, in ALU Issue No. 75.)

Yet what changes have the scandal and criticisms of Foxconn’s production system brought? Some superficial and modest changes have been well reported, aided by Foxconn’s PR machinery: suicide nets, raised salaries, hired counsellors and established care centres. Apart from these, however, Foxconn simply accelerated the process of relocating factories and jobs to other parts of China; meanwhile as with so many scandals, the media has moved on and the matter has died down from public attention. In China, after one year, the inland provincial governments have been competing with each other to offer concessions and attract Foxconn’s investment. The relocations were destined for Zhengzhou of Henan Province and Chengdu of Sichuan Province. And the brands that are the purchases of Foxconn’s products: Apple, HP and Dell? They have pledged to ‘work with Foxconn’ to live up to higher international labour standards.2  But they have been continuing to reap huge profits with hardly a break in their pace. Apple’s revenue in the year 2010, for instance, grew to $65.2 billion, representing a 52 percent gain over 2009. Its net income meanwhile grew to $14 billion in 2010, an increase of 70 percent from the year before.3  And most fundamentally regarding the workers’ working conditions, as reflected in the latest report by Students Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) in May 2011, Foxconn continues to pay the workers low wages, force them to work overtime, and employ degrading military style management, even in the new.

Such realities expose the true nature of ‘global supply chains’ and the limitations of maintaining the globalized production chain itself, which is premised on the maintenance of workers in low-wage and low-skilled jobs, in as precarious and vulnerable work conditions as possible for optimum management control. Brands and buyers are relying massively on production or assembly of their goods in places where basic workers’ rights are not guaranteed – i.e., in countries, or industrial zones, where workers do not enjoy true freedom of association, of collective action and of collective bargaining - the most basic conditions needed for workers to work in dignity and with a minimum of their democratic rights.

Students Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) in Hong Kongand other organizations such as Corporate Accountability Desk in India have played a core role in exposing the real conditions of the workers. But it is the words and the actions of the workers themselves that are the essential starting points for asserting workers’ rights in the face of a discourse that tends to justify their repression as somehow a necessary cost of development, progress and order.

In these stories below, workers from India(Foxconn workers in Chennai and Samsung workers in Noida) speak on various dimensions of anti-labour practices in Foxconn and their linkages with the supply chain.             

The workers of Foxconn in Tamilnadu and Samsung workers in Noida were interviewed to get their views and perceptions on the deteriorating conditions in global supply chain with particular context of Foxconn. The workers very clearly articulated that companies in general care only for their profits and not for workers. They even treat machines better than workers, because in their eyes workers can be easily replaced without any cost, but replacing the machines costs money and eats profits.    - Editorial Team

‘We Are Treated Worse Than Machines’

According to workers of Foxconn India, the company in Tamilnadu now makes and assembles the outer cover (plastic and metal) of mobile phones and supplies it to Nokia. (Earlier Foxconn used to assemble whole mobile phones for Sony Ericsson and Motorola.) For making the mobile casings, plastic resins are put in machines (moulded) and mobile cases are made, and for metal casing, metal sheets are pressed and cut in machines. In the machine section, there are two divisions. In the integrated module board division, where display boards (LCDs) are fixed, workers use masks, and the temperature in that room is maintained between 18 to 22 degrees Celsius with pressure of about 5-25 pascal. The workers here handle chloroform, isopropyl alcohol and thinner solvents every day.

Two months ago, at night, there was a fire in the warehouse where rejected plastics are kept. Everything went up on flames, the water hose was not working, and there were no safety equipments in place to control the fire. If the fire brigade had not come on time, the whole factory would have burnt. But nothing was reported in the media. The whole incidence was hushed up. There are always chances of such incidences and accidents, minor and major. But the fire accident proved that the company does not care about the workers’ well-being, which is why there was no preparedness to handle such incidences.

Aside from directly and indirectly engaged temporary workers, there are five grades of permanent workers at Foxconn India. This long list of categories of workers are actually designed to save labour costs and also to divide the workers.


The situation of health care for workers is even worse. Foxconn India Pvt Limited has three factory sites in Sriperumbadur. Site 1 is in Irungatakottai (behind Hyundai), Site 2 is inside Nokia Telecom SEZ and Site 3 in Sunguvarchatiram. (Site 1 is not in operation.) Site 2 of Foxconn India has one bed, one nurse and virtually only one tablet of medicine! For 2,000 workers, they have only this much facility. Site 3 does not have even this much. Site 3 has two hostels, one for men and one for women, with a total capacity to accommodate 700 workers. Women don’t stay in the hostel.

Only permanent workers get Employees State Insurance (ESI)4 cards but there is no ESI Hospital, there is only a ESI dispensary. This is inadequate both in terms of access and amenities. Therefore the workers rarely get any benefit from this dispensary.

‘How Can One Survive on This Income?’

According to Foxconn India workers, the company’s revenue is recording record growth, but it never thinks about the workers’ income. Why is the world like this? Why does no one think of workers as human beings who also need enough income to eat, dress and educate themselves and their family? Why does the company treat them only as profit-producing machines? The income that the Foxconn workers in India are getting is even not enough to provide two meals to their families. There are about 10,000 workers in the Chennai facility of Foxconn. Only 2,000 workers are permanent (with limited job security); 4,000 are temporary workers engaged directly by the company, 3,000 temporary workers are engaged through labour supplying companies and more than 1,000 workers are engaged as trainees. There are also five grades of permanent workers: A, A+, B, C and D. This long list of categories of workers are actually designed to save labour costs and also to divide the workers, although they mostly do the same type of jobs and many times they replace each other.

It is said that normally a worker enters the company as a trainee for one year, and then he/she is put on probation for six months and then can s/he be considered for becoming a permanent/regular worker of the company. However, probation can be extended and then also only few workers can be so lucky as to get the regular worker status. The casual workers or the workers engaged through labour supplying agencies do not have this opportunity. The trainees get only Rs. 2,955 per month. In the probation period also, the salary remains the same. So actually for trainees and workers on probation, there is no chance of any increment in salary; the payments are fixed. This is why company always uses large number of trainees and probationers as an effective cost-saving practice. The permanent workers in D-grade also get only Rs. 2,956, but then there are chances for uplifting grades and also the salary. But in Foxconn, the increments are only meagre. After working four years as a permanent worker, one gets only Rs. 4,097 per month. While these rates have been revised after backdoor negotiations with the pro-management union Labour Progressive Federation (LPF),5  the increments do not reflect what is paid by Nokia in the same site. Nokia workers in the same city with the same skills get about Rs. 2,000-3,000 per month more than Foxconn workers. It is also interesting to note that the company pays an annual bonus of only Rs. 150 to non-permanent workers, while permanent workers now get an annual bonus equal to one month’s salary.

‘Low Salary Compels Workers to Accept Overtime Work’

The workers of Foxconn India told that the overtime work is generally compulsory and no one can deny working overtime. But generally workers also accept overtime work happily to raise their income. But here also the company loots workers’ labour and compels them to work for more overtime hours than the legal limit (24 hrs/month). For overtime hours over and above the legal limit, the workers do not receive payment; rather they are advised to take compensatory leave. The company openly violates the law by denying the premium rate (1.5 times wages) of overtime wages and paying only normal hourly wages for those hours.

‘10-Hour Shift, Seven Days a Week!’

According to the accounts of the workers of Foxconn India, normally the company runs an eight-hour shift, but actually it becomes 10 hours. The company has arranged transport in such a way that all the workers arrive in the company one hour early and leave the company one hour late. The company uses these two hours of the workers for all necessary meeting and production-related discussions. Therefore the company very systematically loots the workers of two hours. No worker can escape from this. There is also a rule in the company for workers to swipe their badges only 25 minutes after the shift ends. If they swipe it earlier, then they lose a half day’s attendance.

Many times the workers are also compelled to work on their off days (Sundays). If any one refuses to work on Sundays, he/she receives threats of various kinds. 

There is a provision for 10 casual leaves per year, but this is also discouraged. As per company rules, the wages include Rs. 250 as attendance incentive, and if a worker takes even one day leave (even his casual leave), he/she loses this attendance incentive for the month.

‘Leisure is Also Hectic’

The workers of Foxconn related that even during leisure time, workers cannot take any rest. In the factory, workers have to walk at least a half kilometre for drinking water, tea, the canteen and the bathrooms. There are only three bathrooms for 850 workers. Workers on the night shift get a tea break between 2:40 am-3:15 am; they have to walk one km back and forth at night between the workplace and the canteen.

‘They Still Use 19th Century Brutalities to Suppress the Workers’
According to Foxconn India workers, the company is dead against any independent union of workers. It only accepted (but did not recognize) a pro-government and generally pro-management union. Whenever workers tried to form a union, they were thrown out. Even one worker who raised a simple issue before the management relating to the quality of food in the canteen, was dismissed. What happened in July 2010 has not only exposed the general anti-worker attitude of the company but also clearly conveyed that the company

Foxconn India workers say that the overtime work is generally compulsory. Even if the workers accept it happily, to raise their income, the company still loots the workers’ labour –  either not paying for overtime, or paying at a rate below what the law reqiure

would go to any extent to suppress the workers. Around 13 July 2010, the workers raised the demands for a wage hike. Thereafter, the company started to prepare for a possible strike by the workers. The management compelled the workers to do excessive overtime and produced a surplus stock for over two months. Then started the victimization. On 23 July, in a mysterious incidence of gas leak or pesticide poisoning, hundreds of workers were hospitalized. Since 24 July, workers (including many temporary workers) of all the three shifts went on strike. During this period, on 28 July, some workers pasted two pamphlets on Site 2, blaming the company for the 23 July incident. One worker was reading these pamphlets, and, observing his image in CCTV camera, the company management forcefully took him and locked him inside a room for two shifts (more than 16 hours). Actually the worker was innocent and he knew nothing about who pasted those pamphlets. But he was not spared. The management interrogated him in their own style and asked him to tell where he got that pamphlet from. The workers complained to the police about this act of management, but no action was taken. Actually this incident exposed that the company management does not care for any laws or police, and that rather, it can itself act as if they are the police.

On 22 September, the Foxconn workers again went on strike demanding recognition of their union (affiliated to the left-wing union Centre of Indian Trade Unions - CITU) and asking for negotiation of wages settlement with their union. Rather than talking to the workers, the management retaliated by suspending 24 workers. The workers held a strike for 62 days demanding the reinstatement of the suspended workers in addition to other demands. The management responded with intimidation by police, arrests of workers (13 workers were arrested on 10 October and remanded for 13 days), and intimidation of the families of the workers to convince the workers to break the strike and return work again. The suspended workers were not reinstated in spite of a directive from the Labour Department. The union went to court, and the High Court decided in its favour and directed that a secret ballot be held for the recognition of the trade union. The management has gone on appeal and the case is pending a hearing. On the other hand victimization of the workers still continues. Recently, a worker who complained about food hygiene in the canteen was threatened to resign or face termination. Many workers who participated in the strike are facing such pressures and two such workers have already gone to the Labour Court against the management.

 Striking workers at Foxconn plant in Sriperumbudur, India, September 2010
Photo: World Socialisr Website (wsws.org)
 

Client Companies Are Also Equally Responsible

The Samsung workers in Noida raised broader concerns on the issues faced by Foxconn workers. They said that it is not only the issue in Foxconn, it is happening perhaps in all electronics industries. According to them, in August 2000, a mysterious gas leak or pesticide poisoning also happened in Samsung (in Noida) and more than 69 workers were hospitalized (most of them were stable by the end of the day but around 15 workers were said to have reached serious condition).6 No enquiry took place and no one knows about what was this gas leak or pesticide poisoning. According to them they have also similar concerns on the worsening working conditions. The Samsung workers commenting on what has been happening in Foxconn, particularly raised the issue that not only the Foxconn, but also its client companies like Apple, Dell, HP, Sony, Nintendo, Nokia, Motorola etc. are also equally responsible. They clearly articulated that these client companies equally share the sins of Foxconn. According to them, so much has happened. Foxconn created such painful conditions in its China facilities that workers were compelled to commit suicide. In the India facility also, one worker committed suicide. There was a pesticide poisoning incident in the Chennai (India) facility in which hundreds of workers fell sick and had to be hospitalized. When workers raised their voices against such incidences and also demanded a small increase in their wages, the company started playing bad politics. Rather than respecting the collective bargaining right of the workers, it started unleashing severe repression on workers. So many workers were suspended. The company also managed to use the state machinery to victimize the workers and their leaders and send them in jail. It refused to recognize the workers’ union at any cost. Lastly, without consultation with the workers and their union, the management declared that it had reached a wage agreement with another (pro-management) union. Even after the direction of the High Court to hold an election for recognition of the majority union, the process was continuously delayed.

All these things are well-publicized in media and everyone knows. But then also the client companies do not see any problem with Foxconn and they continue flooding their orders to Foxconn. They do not bother about the working conditions and deaths in Foxconn. In such situations, are they not equally responsible for the sins of Foxconn? Are they not responsible for the pains of the Foxconn workers in China, India and elsewhere? Should they not be held equally responsible for the suicides of the Foxconn workers?

Not only this, do the large number of iPad and iPhone customers know that these are produced in factories where conditions are so depressing that workers keep killing themselves? If they are knowingly ignoring it, should they not also be held responsible?

END NOTES

1.  Foxconn: The Global Predator; by Jenny Chan, University of London; November 29, 2010; http://www.isa-sociology.org/global-dialogue/?p=96

2.  See SACOM’s latest report at http://sacom.hk/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/2011-05-06_foxconn-and-apple-.... According to this report which follows up on workers in the new factories, workers still have excessive and forced overtime in order to earn higher wages; they are exposed to dust from construction sites and the shop floor without adequate protection, and exposed to possible occupational diseases; and are still managed in a military style that often deeply humiliates the workers.

3.  http://paidcontent.org/article/419-sec-watch-apples-profits-ballooned-in...

4.  Employees State Insurance (ESI) is a national social insurance system for all workers. Those with ESI cards should be able to access health care at designated clinics and dispensaries.}

5.  Labour Progressive Federation (LPF) is the trade union wing of the regional political party in Tamil Nadu - Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

6.      http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-11-18/delhi/28112873_1_...

Pesticide Poisoning/Gas Leak Still Remains a Mystery

What actually happened at the assembly unit of Foxconn India Private Limited on 23rd July still remains a mystery. On that day at around 11 am during the 1st shift (8 am-4 pm), in the assembly section, 120 workers complained of breathlessness, vomiting and giddiness, and they fainted. They were taken to Jaya Hospital in Sriperumbadur and discharged within an hour. During the night shift (12 am-8 am), between 2-3 am, 107 workers again complained of same problem with similar symptoms. Two workers started vomiting blood. They were also taken to Jaya Hospital. The workers were given inadequate treatment in the morning at the hospital and therefore they demanded to be taken to some other hospital, and were taken to Sri Ramachandra Medical College (SRMC) in Porur by the Foxconn management. Some workers from the morning shift who had been discharged by Jaya Hospital, fell sick again by the evening/night, and were also taken to SRMC.

Initially the government team investigating the incident said that the workers were ‘most probably’ exposed to Malathion (2%), which was being sprayed as part of pest control. However the government team led by Chief Inspector of Factories (CIF), later satisfied with the functioning of the Air Conditioning System which was identified as the probable cause of the incidents, gave a clean sheet to the factory and allowed it reopen.

No action was taken against the company by CIF for the relevant legal violations, under the Factories Act 1948 for failing to disclose the dangerous nature of pesticide fumigation and the Indian Penal Code for Negligent Conduct with respect to Poisonous Substance.

It remains a mystery why management allowed pest control inside the factory premises while 250 workers were working inside the plant. How did the pesticide enter the second floor assembly room, which is supposedly completely closed, air-conditioned and has maximum dust? Why was there no air monitoring of the work and ambient environment done, after the incident, for toxicity? And lastly, what was actually the chemical that caused this illness in workers? Doctors in SRMC while treating the workers were also enquiring with workers about what was the ‘gas’ they had inhaled? The workers were not aware and so they were not able to tell doctors anything. On the other hand, it is also said that the management tried to suppress the facts about the incident and threatened the workers against speaking anything about it.

The mysterious case of fainting workers; Independent fact-finding team’s report on the 23rd July mass fainting of workers in Foxconn India factory in Sriperumbadur, Kanchipuram District, Tamil Nadu; http://www.anroav.org/content/view/114/1/