Two tales of abused labour

Two tales of abused labour

The plight of workers at Foxconn, a $59 billion Taiwanese electronics manufacturing company, is frequently highlighted as the human cost of Chinese capitalism. Over the last five years, the company has been accused of subjecting its army of almost a million employees to poor housing, low pay, unsafe work conditions and intense pressure.

In 2010 alone, over 12 Foxconn employees are believed to have committed suicide. In response it increased wages, hired monks to provide counselling and fixed anti-suicide netting around buildings.

Foxconn makes some of the world’s most popular electronic devices for companies such as Apple, Motorola and Nintendo. This is, perhaps, why the company is subject to intense scrutiny by the international media. There is also the fact that many Americans see Foxconn as having stolen US jobs. One estimate pegs that for one of Apple’s 25,000 employees in the US, it has 10 Foxconn workers in China.

The backlash, largely Western and more than a little self-righteous, is beginning to make an impact. Wages are improving and earlier this week The Guardian newspaper reported that rioting workers have forced the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the state approved worker’s body, to intervene in pay negotiations.

India, too, has its own “difficult stories" about which nothing much gets done save sound, fury and unrealistic demands.

A recent report by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan organization estimated that Indian employers used cheap child labour to net revenues of around $27 billion annually. Many of these children are employed in industries that supply to prominent Western buyers. Brands such as Gap, Primark and Monsanto have all been pulled up in the past for contracting vendors who employ children. Yet, the reaction to such incidents is different to those in the case of Foxconn. In the latter, the stories are presented, at least partly, as a failure of Chinese state policy. But in the former, ire is almost always targeted at Gap or Primark. Imposing a “ban" is meaningless—for there is one already. What needs to be understood while formulating policy and remedial action is why these children come to work and the incentives of their families in sending them to work. What is needed is a careful and sympathetic appraisal of what can be done given the wider socio-economic constraints.

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