Foxconn unrest manifestation of volatile labour market in China
Apple’s manufacturing partner Foxconn, based in central province of China, Zhengzhou, is also known as the ‘iPhone city’ as it makes nearly half of the world’s iPhones. During the busiest season of the year, when Apple launches a new model, Foxconn often offers extra pay and bonuses to ensure that its assembly chain functions properly. With the increased demand and a rapidly expanding service sector, workers and college students take on heavy workloads, skip holidays, and adhere to a strict schedule in order to qualify for their bonus at the end of the month.
Foxconn is reported to pay a basic monthly salary of about 2,200 yuan ($324), which is inadequate to meet the basic necessities of the workers. During peak seasons, however, in order to attract more workers and college students, Foxconn offers pay for overtime hours and lucrative end-of-month bonuses. When the orders start declining, Foxconn is reported to cut down on the overtime and bonuses in an attempt to shrink its workforce.
In 2022, during the peak season Foxconn took to WeChat to announce about the new recruitment. A poster shared by Foxconn on WeChat illustrated a sack of gold coins and promised 10,000 yuan ($1,474) in bonuses if workers joined and stayed for 90 days. In October, ’22 due to a COVID outbreak inside the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, Foxconn announced a ‘closed-loop’ system that banned workers from leaving the compound and required them to quarantine for at least three days before entering, keeping in mind the strict zero-COVID policy of the Xi government.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Gou, Foxconn’s founder, wrote a letter addressed to the Communist Party of China regarding the stringent zero-COVID measures that were threatening China’s position in global supply chains. Even though, Gou’s office denied sending the letter, China eased out its zero-COVID norms in mid November, ’22.
Following this, Foxconn again launched an aggressive recruitment campaign aimed to fill the posts vacated due the the workers leaving. In a strategy to lure more workers, Foxconn increased its daily and monthly bonuses and also its hourly base pay. The new workers could make more than 10,000 yuan ($1,474) a month, working 10 hours a day, six days a week. However, Foxconn once again fell short of its promise of paying the monthly bonuses to the workers in two months’ time as promised in the advertisement posted by it. Instead, Foxconn decided to pay their bonuses after three months gap. Later, during the protest, Foxconn blamed the discrepancy on a technical error.
However, situation got out of control when Foxconn witnessed a huge protest that erupted over the issue of unfair treatment of laborers, confusion over wages and bonuses, unpaid COVID-19 quarantine protocols and filthy living conditions. Various videos have surfaced online showing hundreds of workers outside the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou protesting over the overdue pay and some workers escaping the Foxconn facility by climbing fences and walking to their villages on foot. Those live-streaming the protest commented on the brutality of the police in suppressing the voices of the workers. In an interview, one such employee commented on the strictly timed hour-long lunch break, windowless workshop that smelled of chlorine, and the strict working conditions which included wearing an antistatic gown and a face mask at all times.
Foxconn has offered payouts of RMB 10,000 ($1,400) to newly recruited employees who have decided to leave the factory and vowed to honour the pay agreements, in an attempt to quell unrest after workers violently clashed with police, following which, nearly 20,000 workers left the company. The clashes have been largely censored in the Chinese media with online platforms deleting images and videos posted online.
In December ’22, Foxconn once again raised its pay with a monthly bonus of 6,000 yuan ($885) if recruits worked at least 26 full days in December and 23 days in January. It was popularly known on the social media as the ‘60-day Foxconn challenge.’ Foxconn also lifted its closed-loop system in Dec’22, allowing employees to finally exit the compound after work. The situation inside the factory during the quarantine period as reported by some workers was very unpleasant constant medical and food shortages. Workers would often lose on their bonus if they took a sick leave which resulted in them working for 1 to 11 hours a day despite feeling unwell.
However, this is not the first time that Foxconn has found itself in the midst of a large-scale controversy. In 2010, 14 Foxconn workers had reportedly committed suicide at their Shenzhen factory over working conditions which in turn highlighted the stressful working environment. Later on, in an official statement put out by Foxconn, the company claimed to have appointed trained counselors, installing anti-jump nets between dormitory buildings and installed more leisure facilities at their factory in order to provide a better working condition. This is also not the first time that a company in China is accused of ill-treating its employee.