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After the dust has settled: Foxconn workers talk about the riot

By Jennifer Cheung

As Foxconn employees returned to work at the company’s Taiyuan plant after the massive riot early Monday morning that made international headlines, the online discussion about the causes of the disturbance and what to do next continued.

Photographs and video uploaded to the Internet showed upturned police cars, fences demolished, bikes set on fire and dormitory windows smashed, and many reports claimed that shops inside the complex were broken into. Several thousand armed police were called in to restore order and Foxconn said that some 40 individuals were taken to hospital for treatment.

Although the official version of events from Foxconn attributed the violence to a dispute between workers from different provinces, many workers present at the time were certain the violence erupted after a security guard abused a female employee.

One worker told the Associated Press, “Foxconn, some supervisors, and security guards never respect us. We all have this anger toward them and they (the workers) wanted to destroy things to release this anger.”

Workers’ sentiment on China’s online forums was divided, some angry, some joyful. Workers were eager to post photos and make comments on the events. And some workers from other Foxconn plants in Henan, Shandong, and Shenzhen posted letters praising the Taiyuan workers for their courage to start a riot.

Amid the general exuberance, there were a few voices calling on workers to stay calm and be rational. A worker, who said he had been employed at Taiyuan Foxconn for three years, highlighted the failure of the Foxconn trade unions to properly represent workers’ interests. This he said had complicated the longstanding conflict between management and workers. He hoped workers could handle the conflict in a rational manner in order to avoid unnecessary casualties. 

This post was immediately challenged by another worker, who responded that workers had not meant to instigate a riot but that they had no other way to address injustice. When they called a hotline to complain about the abusive security guards, for example, they were told their complaint could not be handled.

Although several workers posted demands to set up their own more representative trade union, they are unlikely to gain support from local official unions like the workers from Ohms Electronics did in Shenzhen. Foxconn is a major investor in many inland provinces and government officials are eager to please the world’s largest electronics maker by helping it recruit workers. In addition, one of the reasons Foxconn moved its manufacturing bases to China in the first place was to dodge strong unions in Taiwan.

Quite a few workers talked on the forums about leaving the Taiyuan plant. Even though Foxconn raised the basic salary at the Taiyuan plant from 1,550 to 1,800 yuan per month in late August and workers can earn around 3,000 yuan per month with overtime, one worker pointed out that the working and living environment made him feel it was not worth it.

Even before the riot, a recruiter at Foxconn said the Taiyuan plant lost 400-500 workers on average each day. The factory could usually hire 500-700 new workers each day but even then they had to borrow workers from Shenzhen and other plants in order to cope with production demand. Following the riot, Foxconn will temporarily freeze new staff hiring, the recruiter said.

For a long time, labour activists have accused Foxconn of labour abuses such as excessive overtime, the widespread use of student interns, and high workloads. Monday’s riot highlighted once again the need for major manufacturers like Foxconn to think long and hard about their labour management.

Foxconn could do worse than look at one particular auto parts factory in Guangzhou, whose success over the past ten years has largely been due to its ability to retain staff. Aside from paying workers based on productivity and factory earnings, a company manager told CLB that they spend 1,500-2,000 yuan on each worker for a two-day training program every half a year. The training programs are designed to develop workers’ potential and cultivate their sense of belonging to the factory. Moreover, the manager said workers on the factory floor can earn an average monthly salary of 5,000 - 6,000 yuan, almost twice as much as that of Foxconn workers.

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