Friday, June 11, 2010

Sparking a Revolutionary Change in Labour

Terry Gou, the owner of Foxconn, the factory that has seen a spate of suicides recently, is calling for the end of the factory town model.

On Tuesday he told shareholders of the parent group Hon Hai that the model has to be scrapped even though Apple's Steve Jobs declared the factory that manufactures his products was quite 'nice'.

"We look at everything at these companies, and I can tell you a few things that we know," Jobs said. "Foxconn is not a sweatshop. It is a factory, but, my gosh, they have restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools. For a factory, it is pretty nice."

Maybe they are "nice", but the are for the most part unused because the employees are too busy working to scrape a living.

However, Gou has apparently found it hard to sleep after 10 suicides of his employees since the beginning of this year.

Perhaps despite the advantages of having workers live and work in the compound to be able to run a military precision-like production line, he realizes that employees are unable to separate work and leisure, and unable to integrate into city life, a lifestyle they crave.

Most of these young workers who are under 25 are children of migrant workers, who don't know how to farm and would prefer to live in the city than in the rural areas. But being shut within the factory compound prevents them from having any kind of life.

It's not entirely Gou's fault; almost all factories here are like this, compounds where workers live and work because when China started opening up in the early 1980s, there was no infrastructure in place for migrant workers in terms of housing, social services or entertainment.

It's time, Gou said, for local governments to taken on this responsibility. "If a worker in Taiwan commits suicide because of emotional problems, his employer won't be held responsible, but we are taken to task in China because they are living and sleeping in our dormitories," he said.

Liu Erduo, who studies labour issues at Renmin University, says it's a good idea for local governments to take on more social responsibility of migrant workers so that companies can focus on business.

However, local governments may not want to do this -- they themselves are too busy making money and don't want to have to spend it on social services and infrastructure, which would impact their GDP performance (and thus their chances for promotion).

Gou's announcement and the recent spate of suicides and strikes show that workers have had enough and they want more than just a sliver of the pie.

After all, they deserve it. It's time they get paid fairly for the work they do.

The buck stops here. Now.


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