Law in Contemporary Society




Foxconn has promised to give substantial raises to all its workers in China. At the Longhua plant where the deaths occurred, by October 2010 pay will have gone up over 100%. Details here: This is a great result money-wise. I hope this change will also mean fewer hours for workers because they won't need to do as much overtime to get by. After all, man does not live by bread alone -- he also needs to sleep some. The above photos are of a protest at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store in New York on June 7 and of a similar protest at another store that sells Apple products in Hong Kong on June 8. The gentleman to the left of the flowers in the New York photo is Li Qiang, a survivor of Tiananmen Square and director of China Labor Watch.

Please do not buy an iPhone or related equipment for the month of June.

Please also sign the petition in support of workers who make iPhones:

Many of you may have heard of the recent cluster of worker suicides at the Shenzhen factories of Foxconn, a company that makes iPhones for Apple. These deaths have finally focused media attention on the company, although labor rights activists have been reporting abuses at Foxconn since 2008. Foxconn has better industrial hygiene than most factories in the area, and the pay is at least nominally higher, but something in the Foxconn atmosphere seems to damage people psychologically. The fact that workers are not allowed to speak during their 12+ hour workdays, except to answer questions from supervisors, may contribute. Mainstream media has been relying on Foxconn and Apple press releases for information, so I have pasted a link to a better, more detailed account of the deaths.


One worker's family came to the Foxconn factory campus to publicly express their grief. The sign the young woman is holding up says "Injustice."

The best article: The second half of this article compiles individual local media reports of each death.

A protest at Foxconn's Hong Kong offices:

Sadly, another suicide occurred the same day this protest took place.

When I first saw this video, I thought the students were burning iPhones as an expression of disgust, but later I found out they were burning them as offerings to the dead. It's interesting to learn modes of protest from other cultures. The young woman on the megaphone is my friend Debby.

An in memoriam page by Chinese university students: The song is titled "Grief" and was written for the site by a student.

The company installed a net beneath worker dormitories in order to catch workers who throw themselves off the buildings.


It’s been a month, and there has not been any more suicide news after Foxconn raised salaries twice in several days. Therefore, it is time to think about the influence of the series of events on the current mode of production in China.

The pressure for salary increase has been in place for a while. In 2008, China’s new labor law became effective, increasing the costs of business owners greatly. This can be seen as the Chinese government’s desire to force foreign companies to provide better welfare. In fact, the two companies involved in the recent labor incidents in China- Foxconn (Taiwan) and Honda (Japan) - are both foreign companies. I don’t believe these are the only two companies in China having labor issues; some local manufacturers like BYD are even worse in terms of worker welfare. However, incidents at Honda and Foxconn were intensively reported by the state-owned media in China. It is hard not to think that there must be something behind manipulating the public opinion. It can also be seen from the fact that after Honda and Foxconn raised salary respectively, the Chinese government immediately issued statements complimenting the moves.

Nevertheless, up to now there has been no sign that China wants to abandon the mode that has been so successful in the past ten years. For them, a raise of 30% (Foxconn’s first salary increase) is just about right. However, since Foxconn announced that it will raise the wages for another 100% by October, there has been discussion as to whether it is too much for China. Up to now, the prevailing view among commentators is that the salary in Schenzen (and maybe other cities) will go upward generally, and it will cut back on China’s edge as a cheap workforce provider.

This can be seen as the success of the workers, at least in the short term. However, will a general increase in salary and a better working condition (which means higher cost for manufacturers) happen while all other things remain the same and no one loses his or her job? Reportedly Foxconn is relocating part of its production back to Taiwan or to Vietnam, where automated facilities will replace human-intensive production lines. It still remains to be seen if other foreign manufacturers will follow suit.

Therefore, it is way too early to for the workers to claim ultimate victory. If things in China develop in the same way as Taiwan had 20 years ago, increase in wages precedes relocation, which will be followed by a steep rise in unemployment rate. Of course, it is not the only possible result, but no one knows now how the Chinese government is going to tackle the problem. This is a hard problem that happens everywhere in the world- Detroit, Taipei, now Shenzhen, and possibly in the future Hanoi.

Of course, it does not mean we should allow sweatshops to continue existing. Since bottom-up revolts from the workers will only lead to the decision to get rid of them, some regulation or control from upstream is absolutely necessary. That’s the reason why I think the protests in Apple stores are highly justified. Even the Chinese government may not solve the problem since the Vietnamese people will welcome Foxconn just as much. Only when pushed by Apple, Dell, and HP will Foxconn change its current practice.

-- WenweiLai - 28 Jun 2010

Thank you for offering so much information about the horrendous labor practices behind the admittedly fabulous iPhone. I will definitely boycott as the awesome price of $199 does not apply to existing AT&T customers with more than a year left on their contracts. I wonder how is it so easy to overlook a corporation's psychotic indifference to their employees' quality of life. Maybe racism? Because it's not simply that these people are in factories too far away for us to care. When thr Columbia Spectator reported on how the owners of Saigon Grill and Ollie's abused their delivery staff (paid them $2/hour, stole their tips, threatened them), the two restaurants declined in popularity only briefly, even though all their regular customers have seen and interacted with the poor employees. Maybe such indifference in favor convenience (food, magic phones) is an evolutionary trait?

You raise a wonderful point about the need for constant vigilance on poor labor practices and the equivocal results of reform. Just like at times there seems to be nostalgia in the US for the American manufacturing jobs that have departed for unionless countries with citizens with fewer options outside of $5/hour canning factories (for example, Empire Falls by Richard Russo is all about a dying factory town in Maine). In this case the country might be enacting laws more progressive than what the people are ready for, simply because many would rather have factory jobs than not. Also, the actual effectiveness of so-called reforms in China are always suspicious because who knows if anyone will actually enforce minimum wage and hours requirements in towns utterly dependent on such factories. The relatively new labor laws are more likely another method of making doing business in China increasing difficult for foreign companies producing products native companies have learned to make. Hopefully, reforms will not result in extreme unemployment as in Taiwan - how many other easily accessible, densely populated countries are left after all, especially in East Asia? Though, a loss to the increasing wealthy city of Shenzhen (lots of new technology and software companies, rapid raise in real estate prices) of some Foxconn plants due to Shenzhen's being economically secure enough to demand hire minimum wages will be a gain to the poorer, smaller coastal town of Yantai, with more lenient labor laws, I assume since almost no major industry besides tourism after the beaches finally were cleaned up and fisheries closed. (

PS: Foxconn is trying to prevent suicides by installing safety nets around factory and dormitory buildings. I expect knifes and ropes and belts will be soon confiscated from cafeterias and dorm rooms as well.

-- CeciliaWang - 29 Jun 2010

You raised an interesting point that China may try to make a distinction between the rich Southeast and other poorer areas in the country. Practically, it may be a good idea. Remember the snowstorms during the Lunar New Year in 2008? Lots of migrant workers were unable to go home, and there were riots in many major train stations in Canton. Most of the workers working in Foxconn are not from Shenzhen, and it is good if the current jobs there can be moved to other areas where the workers are originally from. Unlike the so-called Asian Tigers, China is large enough to keep very different types of business at the same time. If this strategy works, the success in the past can be reproduced for another ten years, or even more.

Then, how should the legal framework be designed to accommodate so many different things at the same time? A suggestion can be made that while the wages are raised in Shenzhen, in other places the wages may remain at the pre-suicides level. People there might happily take it, since it means earning the same amount of money but being able to go back home every day. However, is this fair? Chinese leaders in the past (i.e. when the reformations just started) liked to say that the strategy was to make part of the people become richer, and then the rich would pull the poor compatriots up. However, twenty years have passed, and the gap in wealth has only broadened. Keeping the current Foxconn-style factory, wherever it is, means continuation of exploitation of those workers.

Therefore, a general transformation that improves the working conditions but keeps the jobs is still necessary. And I think it is possible. Compared with other populous countries like India, China has an advantage: its population is better-educated. In fact, the strike in the Honda factory might not have happened 20 years ago. A better education means that the workers know how to struggle for their rights better. It provides China with a chance to move forward: a workforce with a better quality can do something other than the merely repetitive jobs.

Of course, transformation always accompanies risk. There is no guaranty that a departure from the current practice will do more good than harm in the long run, not to mention the apparent short term loss of those foreign companies pursuing cheaper workers.

-- WenweiLai - 03 Jul 2010

Wenwei and Cecilia, thank you for your comments. Both of you talk about how non-wage factors such as geography and education make jobs likely to stay in China, and both of you clearly care about the cruel conditions in the factories. Your thoughtfulness is a great change from the Washington Consensus that ruled when I was in Students Against Sweatshops 10+ years ago. Few students wanted to devote nuanced thought to how the working lives of our fellow human beings in China and other countries might be improved. Instead we heard a lot about inevitable “sweatshop phases” of national “development.” Organizing for better conditions could only drive factories away and doom workers to lives of prostitution and picking through garbage dumps. Happily, in the real, non-theoretical world, workers often succeed when they pressure their employers. The Honda workers at the first Foshan plant are a good recent example. I particularly like their story because they won without organized support from consumers abroad. Instead, they leveraged their own skills, the labor shortage in South China, and Japan’s unpopularity in China. By adding their courage and solidarity to those factors, they were able to extract significant improvements from Honda.

-- AmandaBell - 04 Jul 2010


You seem to be pretty optimistic about the prospect of workers’ fighting for better conditions. Do you think the Honda factory in Foshan in just a special exception (China’s hatred for Japan plus a government relatively willing to push foreign “capitalists”), or there is something that can be applied to other places in the world?

NY Times today runs a follow-up to the story. It asserts that “China no longer wants to be the workshop of the world anymore.” The article concludes with a sentence “the value goes to where the knowledge is,” which seems to suggest that China should gradually get rid of the current labor-intensive businesses and echoes the point I made previously.

The article also provides a piece of information that surprises me: the labor involved in the assembly of an iphone accounts for only 7 percent of the total cost. I knew the number must be small, but it is way too small to be justified. (Ironically, when his employees are paid so little, the CEO of Foxconn is the richest person in Taiwan.) Therefore, China’s transformation is by no means the end of the story. The jobs will go to another country, and then another. Since it seems imminent that factories will start moving away from China, currently there are two things that we must pay attention to: firstly, how should the workers in China make a living then? Secondly, will the working conditions in other countries be as inhumane as ever?

There is some light but also a lot of uncertainty in both aspects. For China, better quality of workforce means better chance to have a success in higher-end businesses. However, it is still doubtful whether any kind of business can support as many people as Foxconn and other sweatshops do now. For other countries, it still remains to be seen whether the possible worker-initiated movements will reproduce the success that workers in China achieved in recent months. In my opinion, it is still very important to have other means to regulate businesses and force them to accept better terms. However, it will be even more difficult. In most third-world countries, governments tend to cooperate with foreign businesses in exploiting the local population, as long as they make enough contribution to the corrupt government officials. Blood diamonds are just one extreme example.

-- WenweiLai - 06 Jul 2010


-- AmandaBell - 01 Jun 2010


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r12 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:13:21 - IanSullivan
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