A few thoughts about the “mass suicide” protest at Foxconn’s factory in Wuhan.

First, a lot of journalists have followed Want China Times’ lead and written that 300 workers were protesting, and that they worked on a Microsoft XBox 360 production line.

We checked both of those things yesterday and couldn’t confirm either. Foxconn said 150 workers had striked. Which matches up with the photographs taken on the roof of the factory - there clearly aren’t 300 people there.

As for the Microsoft line - the worker we managed to get hold of said the new production line that had triggered the protest was making computer cases for Acer. Not Microsoft. But Microsoft were jumpy enough about it all to issue a boilerplate statement saying they were investigating the matter.

The worker we spoke to was fairly sheepish about the whole affair. The protest began on January 2 when 500-600 workers were moved to a new production line, without prior training. They had a tough first day. So tough, in fact, that they quit at lunch time and refused to return to work.

Given how much hardship Chinese migrant workers can take, I can only imagine how difficult the conditions must have been.

After meeting with the management, Foxconn offered a month’s pay to anyone who wanted to quit. It seems to me that ahead of Chinese New Year, with everyone looking for any opportunity to go home early with a bit of cash in their pocket, that was a mistake.

With huge numbers of the workers taking Foxconn up on the offer, it was quickly withdrawn. That’s when the workers decided to take to the roof.

The workers know that Foxconn is nervous about roofs and suicides, after what happened in 2010, and this seems to me to have been a pretty calculated ploy. Call me a cynic, but I doubt any of them was planning to throw themselves off.

And indeed none of them did. Foxconn agreed in the end to pay off 45 of them and the rest went home early for Chinese New Year. The worker we spoke to said he had a job back on the old production line waiting for him after the holiday.

So, what conclusions can we draw? Mainly that migrant workers are ever more aware of their rights, and are less and less afraid to hold their employers to ransom if they do not get what they see as reasonable treatment.

The second conclusion is that even though this was not a story about Apple, Foxconn and Apple have become closely linked in the minds of readers. Several commenters at the bottom of my report on the protest called for Apple to stop using Foxconn (I’ve explained previously why this is a very unlikely outcome).

Foxconn itself was quick to put out a statement to the media. That is a change of tack for a company whose press office typically never picks up the phone.

And finally, there are still plenty of people who point out that (a) the suicide rate at Foxconn is below the national average in China and (b) Foxconn is a much better employer than many of its rivals.

On the argument about the suicide rate - I have argued before that this is irrelevant. China’s national statistics on suicide are inflated by the number of people, sadly still mostly women, who kill themselves in the countryside. If you look at the suicide rate among young workers then the picture is very different.

In addition, what happened at Foxconn in 2010, with scores of young people throwing themselves off roofs, mostly in the same campus, was clearly a cluster. And while to some extent it was caused by the feelings of alienation and depression suffered by the workers, it was also caused by Foxconn’s own handling of the incident. As I have written before, Foxconn incentivised its workers to commit suicide by offering huge compensation payments to their families. Those offers were quickly rescinded when it became clear they had provoked workers to weigh up the value of their lives.

On point (b) I have plenty of sympathy. Foxconn is a better employer than many many other manufacturers, which is why so many people still queue outside its factories to work there. How you feel about Foxconn ultimately depends which camp you fall into regarding cheap foreign labour.

One camp believes that outsourcing labour to developing countries gives those countries the cash and opportunities to develop, so that poor conditions for workers are, in the end, justified by development for the next generation. This is certainly true, and, let’s face it, no one is forcing migrants to take production line jobs. They do so because that is the best opportunity they have.

The other camp believes that since we, in the West, have strict rules about labour, it is unethical to shift production to countries where those rules do not exist or are unenforced. We should all be prepared to pay a bit more for our goods in order to make sure people do not suffer in order to produce them.

Of course, the two camps are not mutually exclusive. I subscribe to both.
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