A few years ago, the multinational tech manufacturer Foxconn, a brand previously vaunted as a symbol of China’s 21st century industrial ascent, was marred by the image of miserable young factory workers flinging themselves off of buildings. So the company rolled into damage control mode with typical efficiency: Along with emergency suicide nets installed outside dormitories came a flurry of plans for morale-boosting, like deploying therapists, monks and “2,000 singers, dancers and gym trainers” to lift spirits. At a management-sponsored pep rally, some workers were spotted in “I Love Foxconn” shirts—positive thinking through casualwear.
And now, Foxconn is rewarding that love by introducing its young, sometimes rambunctious, occasionally suicidal workforce to the virtues of workplace democracy.
The company has announced that workers will be able to vote for union representatives at their factories. The plan, according to news reports, is to allow workers to elect “junior workers” to represent them in a union leadership structure historically dominated by management and officials. In a union system closely linked to the political establishment and employers, the goal, it seems, is to keep labor relations smooth as factories churn out their signature Apple product lines.
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The scene of the cheery workers wearing their love for their company on their chests is a good backdrop for evaluating the voting reforms and other efforts to improve conditions at Foxconn. What’s really helping workers? And what’s simply polishing the Foxconn’s image? Following widespread media coverage of the cluster of suicides, Foxconn and Apple have engaged in a well-publicized auditing process and vowed to raise labor standards. But despite reports showing incremental improvements in the notoriously hyper-stressful factory conditions (as well as some persistent labor violations) many questions remain on whether these changes are really changing workers’ day-to-day lives or influencing global manufacturing standards as a whole.
Though the promise of a more direct election system at Foxconn (paralleling similar initiatives at other workplaces) suggests Foxconn is yielding to public and worker-driven pressure for a more responsive management structure, elections will not ensure equitable collective bargaining rights, and they are definitely no guarantee of genuine respect for workers’ fundamental freedom of association. Contrary to popular perceptions, many Chinese workplaces are nominally unionized, with millions of union members nationwide. The massive state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions is tasked with keeping labor roughly in line with neoliberal economic policies, though growing social unrest in recent years has heightened attention to workers’ issues in official political circles.
Historically, these official unions have acted as tools for management rather than channels for advocacy. According to a 2010 report by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, economic liberalization and a whirlwind of privatization led to a transfer of union leadership from the official state to a state-friendly managerial class, and workers’ hardships and disenfranchisement persisted:
The end result of these changes was that the “government-led” system of labour relations established during the planned economy had been almost completely replaced by an “employer-led” system that has marginalized and exploited workers, depriving them of any means of protecting or pursuing their own interests.
Within the official union apparatus, there are mechanisms for addressing labor grievances. Some advocates do genuinely try to help workers seek redress through formal petitioning. The question is not whether labor structures and protections exist on paper, it’s a matter of how workers gain the power to navigate the barriers imposed by the economic and political elite.
According to China Labour Bulletin Communications Director Geoffrey Crothall, union representatives are only useful to the extent they can challenge a resistant corporate culture:
There is no point having trade union elections if the boss still refuses to talk the union. So for this reform to have any meaning, Foxconn will have to accept the trade union as an equal partner in collective bargaining to resolve grievances and improve pay and working conditions. That will require a massive shift in Foxconn’s corporate culture, which has hitherto been very authoritarian; unilaterally determining pay and conditions and expecting unquestioning obedience from workers.
But the real labor action is closer to the ground: As they ride a wave of favorable demographic and labor market factors, rank-and-file workers at various companies, including Foxconn, have made important strides in organizing despite lacking an independent union. Many labor wins have come from spontaneous protests and uprisings, such as significant pay raises at a Honda factory following a high-profile strike in 2010. (Tragically, some observers have even described Foxconn’s suicides as a desperate form of protest.) Though such actions haven’t led to any major improvements in the workplace, they mark a growing militancy among workers and a sense that collective action can yield real results. Earlier this month, a strike reportedly broke out at a factory in Jiangxi Province before being quickly suppressed by “riot police.”
Ross Eisenbrey, an economist at the labor-oriented Economic Policy Institute who has researched Foxconn and Apple, tells In These Times via email that the union reforms at Foxconn should be viewed in the context of broader barriers to worker activism:
Independent trade unions are illegal in China, so it is a given that any union at Foxconn will not be independent. Moreover, China itself is not a democracy, does not elect its leaders by popular vote, and has no tradition of democracy. I consider this to be more public relations than reality. This is not genuine workplace democracy or even a real step towards it.
Eisenbrey noted that it is common for independent unions to have a mutual bargaining relationship with management, but worker representation must be coupled with real leverage in the workplace, noting that “there is no right to strike in China, so there is no hope of exercising sufficient bargaining power to make a difference.”
That last concept—the right to organize independently—is enshrined in international labor standards, but remains elusive despite lip service to “corporate social responsibility” by Apple and other iconic global brands. Foxconn claims it will “train” workers on voting procedures. But it’s clear that workers who have been agitating for their rights understand where real collective power is generated; it comes from the same hands that make the products driving China’s economic boom. Regardless of whether management gives them a fair vote, workers are learning that real workplace democracy doesn’t have to heed management’s rules.