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Foxconn Suicides
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Would You Believe It? China Firm Dealing With Labor Issues


By James Donahue


American industrial genius Henry Ford once put his philosophy for his success in the automobile industry into a single sentence: “There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.”


Ford, who invented the assembly line method of manufacturing and used it to revolutionize the automobile industry, believed the people he hired to build his cars should be paid a wage that made it possible for them to buy the product they were assembling. He balanced labor costs against the benefit of product sales and it paid off.


Unfortunately, Ford’s ideas appear to be long forgotten among contemporary corporate boards and their stockholders. Today’s produce makers appear to be willing to do anything possible to cut labor costs and the quality of the goods to produce higher and higher profits.


World trade agreements between the United States and other nations like Mexico, China, India and Indonesia have led many major American corporations to resort to “outsourcing.” That means moving a portion, if not all of the company’s labor-intense operations overseas in a quest to use low-cost and non-union workers.


It is now almost impossible to find a sewing machine, television set, computer, I-pad, coffee maker, air conditioner or other products, including automobiles that are true American-made products.


Now that the great world-wide shift in business and industry has a few decades under the belt something interesting is starting to happen. Workers that once were glad to stand on an assembly line doing monotonous tasks for a few dollars a day are starting to organize. They are collectively standing up to their employers and demanding better working conditions, higher wages and things like health benefits.


And one of the largest overseas corporations, Foxconn, is fighting back.


Since it began operations in Taiwan in 1973, Foxconn Technology Group has grown to be one of the largest manufacturer of electronics parts and devices in the world. It has plants in Taiwan and mainland China and employees about 1.2 million workers.


An estimated 150 workers at Foxconn’s Wuhan plant recently made world news when they stood for two days on the roof of the three-story factory and threatened to jump to their deaths because of a labor dispute. They were reportedly talked out of suicide by the mayor of the town. We have since learned of suicide jumps by workers at other Foxconn plants, including a dozen workers who jumped in 2010.


Obviously the Chinese workers never heard of the successful sit-down strikes of the 1930s that forced General Motors Corporation in Flint, Michigan, to give in to worker demands for collective bargaining. That strike lead to improved working conditions, better wages and health and insurance benefits for not only the automobile workers, but most employees in the United States from the 1940s to the 1970s.


The suicides and threats of suicide by Chinese workers apparently proved to be a strong enough bargaining chip to gain improvements in working conditions.


The most common complaint among workers are that they are promised wages between $246 and $307 a month when they are hired, but they receive only about $146. They work long hours, are exposed to dust and harmful chemicals, and must endure “military style” training. Many workers are forced to move from home when they are moved between the corporation’s 27 different operating factories in China.


Many Foxconn workers live with six other people in a company dormitory room. They spent most of their days commuting, working, eating and sleeping. When they are working, they must stand for hours at a time. There is consequently little, if any social life.


These are among the complaints workers at Foxconn are known to have. It has been reported that the problem of suicide has been severe enough that the company makes new hires sign a pledge that they will not attempt to commit suicide on the job.


The company’s latest plan to deal with labor is perhaps the cruelest yet devised. Foxconn is already in the process of replacing workers with robots. It has about 10,000 machines already in place and plans to have a million more of them doing parts assembly within the next three years, according to company chairman Terry Gou.


Robots don’t commit suicide. They don’t demand wage increases, improved working conditions, and they can work around the clock as long as someone keeps their parts lubricated.


It sounds ingenious but there remains that old haunting question that Henry Ford dealt with so well a century ago. If nobody is working and earning wages, who will buy the television sets, computers and I-pads Foxconn is manufacturing?