Corporate malfeasance is becoming a widely reported phenomenon in mainland China. However, some organizations are at the forefront of this exposure, working to report injustice from the heart of Asia’s industrial world.
One of these courageous organizations is SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior). Their work has been heavily used by the Western media, from The Guardian to the New York Times, and SACOM has won several awards for their journalism in the public interest.
I first discovered SACOM following reports on Apple’s contracting with a manufacturing corporation, Foxconn, which is known for its dishonest labor policies and poor factory conditions.
In my effort to thoroughly research corporate-led globalization, in China and elsewhere, I interviewed Debby Chan Sze Wan, Project Officer for SACOM. Her insight into this issue comes from her hands-on experiences in mainland China, where she interviewed workers and reported directly from the factory sites in areas such as Chengdu.
Below is the full, unedited interview with Debby Chan Sze Wan.
William Elliot Shaub: Debby, thanks so much for your time and the opportunity to gain some insight into your intrepid reporting on corporate malfeasance in developing countries.
I want to first present you with a quote from Louis Woo, a Foxconn manager who explained that factory suicides “were not connected to bad working conditions. There was a copy effect. If one (worker) commits suicide, then others will follow.” The copy effect is legitimate according to psychology texts, but Foxconn is likely responsible for the suicides to a degree. What do you make of “the copy effect”, and what role do you think Foxconn has in instigating suicidal attitudes?
Debby Chan Sze Wan: Foxconn used different excuse to evade its responsibilities over the series of suicides. Besides the “copy effect”, it also suggested workers committed suicides because their family can have compensation from the company. Also, it also tries to direct the public that all the victims have personal problems like relationship with boyfriend or girlfriend.
One of the survivors of Foxconn suicides, Tian Yu, explained why she jumped from a building last year. She was 17 years old at that time and Foxconn was her first job. She was always scolded on shop floor no matter she made mistake or not. After the first month, she should get her salary but due to the chaotic management at Foxconn, she was asked to go to another Foxconn campus to find her salary record but fail. She spent a day going to different buildings at Foxconn and spent all the money. She was so frustrated and jumped from a building. She was paralysed in her lower body after that.
You can also watch Tian Yu’s testimony from the following website here.
There may be different reasons to drive workers into despair, but management methodology should not be ignored. Many workers tell they have work stress in the factory. They are afraid to make mistake. For the new workers, they are even more vulnerable. They don’t know who can they talk to. They can only weep in the dormitory.
WES: The philosopher Murray Bookchin argued in the late twentieth century that “the working class is not a revolutionary force. Social change requires a plurality of the population.” The working class in the U.S has few allies in the private sector. What do farmers, doctors, and fellow citizens in general think of what’s happening to workers in Foxconn’s factories? Is there sympathy, concern or any sense of solidarity?
DCSW: In China, the civil society is not active. So, it is our role to inform the workers about their rights and gain support from different sectors as well. SACOM is not based in Mainland China, we try raise awareness from the public through actions in Hong Kong and media campaign. We believe not many people know about the plight of the manufacturing workers. And I really hope that after the consumers are informed, they will stand with the workers to voice out their concerns.
WES: In the Foxconn plant at Chengdu, you found that workers usually have 80-100 hours overtime work on top of 174 regular hours per month. This is almost 2-3 times more than the legal limit. Moreover, many workers don’t even have access to their contracts. Based on the (marginal) pro labor legislation passed by Parliament in 2008, is there any hope that Parliament will enforce the law more strictly?
DCSW: Weak law enforcement in China is always a problem. It will be great if the local government can strictly implemented the law. Unfortunately, boasting the GDP is always an agenda item before the rights of the workers.
WES: On a related note, how far will China’s political system, which is concerned about ‘stability’ first, let workers expand on their labor rights?
DCSW: The Chinese government also emphasizes harmony and stability. However, the government has very different definitions towards the two words. Justice should always be the basis. Also, the workers cannot even elect their own representatives in the union. So, you can imagine the status of labour rights in China.
WES: In your latest report, it becomes quite clear that workers sell their labor cheaply and have little control over their productive lives. It’s reminiscent of the ‘wage slavery’ argument first put forth by the factory girls in northern Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. In your interviews with workers, they seem exhausted, frustrated and demoralized almost beyond belief. Could you describe the workers’ disposition as you saw it in mainland China?
DCSW: Some workers always tell they get used to the hardship of work, while some feel there is no alternative for them. It is quite depressing.
WES: Many supporters and fans of Apple defend the company by attempting to disconnect it from Foxconn, thus apologizing for the oppressive factory system. Do the workers themselves have grievances with Apple and other companies who contract with Foxconn?
DCSW: Apple is directly responsible to the dire working conditions at Foxconn as it is the sole buyer in Foxconn’s plants in Chengdu. Some middle management of Foxconn also told the brands, including Apple always have representatives in the factory. So, they know well the hardship of workers.
WES: Final question, and I want to thank you for making time out of your busy schedule to talk to me today. It’s sincerely appreciated. To what extent does mobility of labor exist in China? If a worker wants to escape the poor social conditions of Foxconn and find work of similar pay, can he or she easily do so?
DCSW: Workers always aspirate that they can open a small shop or learn some skills. So, they no longer need to work as production leader in the factory. I don’t know how realistic it is, but it reflected that the young workers hope to detach from the working environment in the factory.
For more information about SACOM and Debby Chan Sze Wan, visit SACOM’s official website.