Tag Archives: China

Inside a Foxconn sweatshop

Steve Jobs says Foxconn is a “pretty nice” place to work. If he thinks that will stand up to even a cursory examination of life for China’s industrial workers, he is kidding himself. And if he thinks that can shield Apple from a big hit to its fragile brand image he is also kidding himself.

There are decades of academic and NGO research on the horrific conditions faced by Chinese workers. And this report by Bloomberg makes clear that Foxconn is no exception.

I recall a meeting I had a few years ago (in Steve Jobs’ hometown Palo Alto no less where he said so callously the other day that Gunn High School kids commit suicide, too) with a visiting workers compensation lawyer from China. He described the thousands of Chinese workers who return to their rural villages minus eyes and limbs or suffering from neurological or respiratory diseases, all the result of working in plants like those managed by Apple/Dell/Sony subcontractors.

I thought at the time that he was describing something resembling the return of wounded soldiers after the American Civil War.

Apple should publicly call for an independent investigation of conditions in Valley subcontractors and support the formation of independent trade unions and the establishment of enforceable labor laws.

Inside a Foxconn factory.

Chinese workers revolt; Steve Jobs spins; Silicon Valley call to investigate labor conditions in China

images2On the 21st anniversary of the crushing of the Tienanmen Revolt of 1989, the Financial Times has taken official notice of what we have been following at Global Labor/King Harvest for several years: a virtually hidden uprising of Chinese workers.

In response to their editorial and an opinion piece by David Pilling that appeared yesterday, I sent in the following letter:


Independent and widely respected Chinese labour activist Han Dong Fang is surely correct, as a tactical matter, that it is important to take politics out of the new labour movement that you now recognize is emerging in China (David Pilling “Chinese labour is licensed to stake its claim”).  The “race to the bottom” has now hit bottom and Chinese industrial workers are taking matters into their own hands to correct the years of growing inequality in an economy built on their backs.

However, that does not mean as you concluded in your leader today (“Chinese workers are now in revolt”) which appears, perhaps coincidentally, on the anniversary date of the crushing of the Tiananmen Revolt of 1989, that “fundamental reform” is simply a matter of economic restructuring to rebalance the Chinese economy. Fundamentally, economic policy shifts will only be an outcome of political processes.

That is the reason that we in the West should reaffirm support for freedom of association, the most basic of human and labor rights, in China.  Only if Chinese workers, rural and urban, are free to organize independently of the government can the democratic institutions emerge that will insure that new economic policy indeed is fair and balanced.


Stephen F. Diamond

Also of interest is a letter that workers at the Honda plant forced the local ACFTU to send in defense of striking workers who were set upon by thugs, apparently dispatched by the ACFTU to break the strike. The strike was a success resulting in a big jump in wages, relatively speaking.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Steve Jobs has spoken in defense of Apple subcontractor Foxconn where a rash of suicides has led to global outrage and an attempt to boycott Apple. Jobs claims Foxconn is not in fact a sweatshop (“they have a swimming pool”) and, somewhat lamely, he tried to compare the worker suicides there to a rash of suicides by teenage high school students from Palo Alto’s Gunn High School.

Of course, Palo Alto, where Jobs lives, is one of the world’s wealthiest communities (just count the swimming pools) and while the Gunn suicides are a terrible phenomenon, to suggest that there are therefore no serious problems at Foxconn does not pass the smell test. In fact, Jobs rarely comments on these kinds of issues and that he has in this case makes clear that Apple is very concerned about the impact of the conditions at the subcontractor on its bottom line – as they should be.

Jobs argues that Apple is good at oversight of its factories. But it does not rely on enforceable labor law and legal trade unions which are the two necessary pillars of any safe and healthy workplace. And presumably Foxconn would not have raised its wages by 30% after the tenth worker committed suicide if it did not think it had a problem. Where was Apple’s oversight team before that worker had to give up his life?

In light of the naivete or malfeasance at work in the mindset of Silicon Valley managers I have asked the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was in touch with me recently about testifying, to hold a hearing here in the Valley about labor conditions at its Asian subcontractors.

Meanwhile you can support the Foxconn/Apple campaign here.

FT.com / Comment / Editorial – Chinese workers are now in revolt.

A rare MSM spotlight on Han Dong Fang of China Labour Bulletin

imagesHan Dong Fang of the independent Hong Kong based China Labour Bulletin comments in this FT video on the recent labor unrest and tragic Foxconn suicides.

A wildcat strike at Honda has led to a large wage increase as well.

I recently was profiled in Inside Fashion making the point that the global “race to the bottom” in China has likely touched bottom. Workers there are pushing back.

The regime itself now likely realizes the need to raise domestic demand to counter balance the hit the export sector is taking. The key step now is the legal recognition of genuinely independent unions. In the longer run the new Chinese labor movement must develop an alternative perspective on economic organization.

June 1: Han Dongfang on why Chinas labour system is broken – world – FT.com.

The Party’s Over: China’s Endgame

And so, as the economy began to fail in 2008 and as factories closed by the tens of thousands, workers took to the streets, especially in the country’s export powerhouse, the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province. Protests have continued around the country. At the end of July last year, for instance, some thirty thousand steelworkers in the rust-belt province of Jilin fought with police and beat to death a top manager who had threatened large layoffs after a merger. The incident illustrates the trend that disturbances are becoming larger and more violent. In fact, demonstrators in the last few years have been using deadly force as an initial tactic against local authorities.

All the more reason for the State Department and organized labor to re-think any idea of “constructive engagement” with China.

via World Affairs Journal – The Party’s Over: China’s Endgame.

Foxconn: Another worker suicide at electronics maker’s factories in China

Worker protest by suicide is a horrible fact of life in China. It serves as more evidence of the misguided approach to labor rights that the new human rights team at the State Department appears intent on following.

Instead of  “constructive engagement” with the bosses in Beijing, we need pressure on China to recognize universal labor standards including the right to freedom of association.

Silicon Valley should take the lead here and ask for an independent investigation of labor conditions at Foxconn and the other offshore manufacturing centers used to build our laptops and smartphones and iPads by the ILO and including an internationally recognized team. Transparency is a crucial first step to encouraging Chinese workers to take advantage of universal human rights to solve their problems rather than desperate measures.

Foxconn: Another worker dies at electronics maker’s factories in China

Tian’anmen – Then and Now…


Around the world this week millions will remember the brave Chinese students and workers who stood up to the Chinese “communist” autocracy in May and June of 1989 and paid for their courage with their lives. Thousands were likely murdered in the streets around Beijing, while many thousands there and elsewhere throughout China ended up in prison.  The picture above was taken in the days after the crack PLA troops went on their bloody offensive on June 4 – only after regular troops refused their orders to shoot on unarmed Beijing residents.

Influenced by the uprisings of Polish Solidarity the Chinese protestors thought that China, too, could emerge from the era of neo-stalinist authoritarianism and join the global community.

The party/state apparatus that controls China had other ideas. Their implicit alliance with global capital has provided that apparatus with a new lease on life – as long as Chinese workers are willing to comply with the cheap labor/non-union regime imposed by the alliance.

In the west policy makers and intellectuals bend over backwards to justify the alliance with arguments about “progress towards democracy” and an “emerging rule of law.”  Some like David Brody, the eminent American labor historian, contend that the state controlled labor organization can evolve, as did some American company unions, into genuine labor unions. Others, such as labor educators Ken Jacobs and Katie Quan of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, Kent Wong of the UCLA Labor Center and Elaine Bernard of Harvard’s trade union program, work hand in glove with the regime itself in various exchange and “education” programs. They seem to think the American labor movement can actually learn something from the Chinese regime.  You can watch me debate these issues with Brody and Jacobs as well as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein here

Some US labor leaders such as Andy Stern of the bureaucratically controlled SEIU buy the line of Brody et. al and believe an alliance with the Chinese regime offers a chance to counter balance the power of global multinational capital. He seems oblivious to the impact of the alliance that has already been established between capital and the Chinese regime.

What is striking about these kinds of defenses of the brutal labor regime in China by westerners is that the Chinese working class itself has been, on and off since 1989, in near open revolt against the Chinese government and spurns its labor arm, the All China Federation of Trade Unions.  One analyst – Ching Kwan Lee – described this as a veritable “insurgency.”

Even official Chinese statistics admit the level of resistance. According to the China Labour Bulletin, the leading independent labor advocacy group based in Hong Kong and led by 1989 workers leaders Han Dong Fang, there has been a huge increase in labor disputes referred to the official arbitration bodies used by the state to resolve labor conflicts.  There has been a similar explosion in the number of lawsuits filed by workers.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, party dissident Bao Tang, now under house arrest in Beijing, said:

“China has almost erased the memory of Tiananmen by making it illegal to talk about what happened. But there are miniature Tiananmens in China every day, in counties and villages where people try to show their discontent and the government sends 500 policemen to put them down. This is democracy and law with Chinese characteristics.

“The first sentence of the Chinese national anthem goes like this: ‘Arise! All those who refuse to be slaves.’ I believe there will be real democracy in China sooner or later, as long as there are people who want to be treated equally and have their rights respected.

“It will rely on our own efforts, it will depend on when we, the Chinese people, are willing to stand up and protect our own rights.”

So this week, in the words of the American labor radical, Mother Jones, “mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.”

Global slowdown hits China hard

For awhile some advocates of globalization contended that China and other developing countries were immune from the banking crisis hitting the US and other advanced economies. They argued a so-called “de-coupling” thesis which said that an independent growth dynamic was at work in what were once called “underdeveloped nations” and that they could ride out the storm.


Here is just a snippet of headlines from China in the past week or so, courtesy of Doug Noland at Prudent Bear:

February 2 – Bloomberg (Robert Hutton):  “Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the worldwide economic crisis shows ‘how dangerous a totally unregulated market can be.’ ‘It brings disastrous consequences,’ Wen said… ‘The main causes are for some economies, they have imbalances in their economic structure. For a long period of time they’ve had dual deficits, trade deficits and fiscal deficits.’”

February 4 – Bloomberg (Luo Jun):  “Chinese banks may have offered a record 1.2 trillion yuan ($175 billion) of new loans in January, the China Securities Journal reported… The four biggest state-owned banks completed 20% of their full-year target, with majority of the loans lent for railways, highways, electricity grids and the infrastructure, report said.”

February 3 – Bloomberg (Wang Ying):  “China’s oil refineries posted a loss of 149.3 billion yuan ($22 billion) in the first 11 months of last year because of higher raw material costs… China faced an energy shortage in the first half though supplies became ample in the second half as the economy slowed, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said…”

February 1 – Bloomberg (Dune Lawrence):  “China’s retail sales during the week- long Lunar New Year holiday climbed to 290 billion yuan ($42.4 billion), 14% higher than last year’s holiday period, the Ministry of Commerce reported yesterday.”

February 3 – Bloomberg (Chia-Peck Wong):  “Hong Kong’s home sales fell for a seventh month in January…  The number of residential units changing hands last month slumped 67% from January 2008…”

Are there real unions in China? A debate with labor historians David Brody and Nelson Lichtenstein, labor economist Ken Jacobs and legal scholar Stephen Diamond

I was part of a debate recently with some other academics on labor rights in China. You can listen to it here. It runs about an hour and a half. The other participants were labor historians Nelson Lichtenstein and David Brody and labor economist Ken Jacobs.

The panel was chaired by Dr. Arthur Lipow of the Alameda Public Affairs Forum, which hosted the panel.
A helpful background report by Dan Gallin, former head of the International Union of Foodworkers and now head of the Global Labour Institute, can be found here.
(Note: the discussion followed a showing of China Blue, a terrific documentary on labor conditions in China today.)

China labor debate