It’s not exactly headline news to us in the west that working conditions in China aren’t something to smile about. Through a combination of weak union power, unprecedented economic growth and an extremely large population, China’s workers are being pushed into desperation. Often being forced to work over ten hours at least five times a week, performing monotonous tasks, where £2 an hour is a wage to be cherished (wages have fallen as low as £1.12 per hour). This is not news, or at least not anymore.
What may be a little more surprising to us in the west is the thought of Chinese factories having to install suicide nets around their factories in order to catch falling workers. But this is exactly what has been happening. In 2010, over the space of a two-month period, Chinese company Foxconn, which has business ties with Apple and HP amongst many others, saw an estimated thirteen young workers jump to their deaths, whilst either on shift or from their dormitories, also situated on the factory’s site. The issue even has its own wikipedia page.
Though the events at Foxconn did receive coverage in the west at the time, it was minimal and offered what any decent human being would regard as ridiculous and insulting suggestions. For example, a 2010 BBC report reassured us that workers at Foxconn would receive counselling for their problems at work but failed to call out policies or laws which drove workers to suicide.
Why is this important today? Although the Foxconn suicides are a fairly recent phenomenon, the roots of the problem go back to the 1980s when the globalisation project began to take off. Today, those early effects, through the unleashing of a Thatcherite neo-liberal agenda, are intensifying. From tax havens to financial crises to climate change, globalisation has become a dirty word for many and we’re living right in the crux of it. Yet we continue to buy smartphone after smartphone, laptop after laptop, convinced by the media that all is well in camp globalisation, but its not.
So why do situations like the Foxconn suicides not get more coverage on our news screens in the west, and why do we not care about helping? It’s because globalisation hasn’t been so bad for everyone. In fact, it’s been helpful to the countries that were already rich before the 1980s. The west has outsourced the shit out of their companies to places such as China and India where low wages mean higher profits.
However, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Many have pointed to the end of globalisation or at least to the growth of trends that help push a more localised system, such as the slowing of economic growth, augmented by rising levels of central government debt, income inequality and high levels of immigration. Still the big problems lie in the revolving door of politics, business and the media. As long as globalisation serves these guys, many more Chinese workers may die.
Next time you think about getting a new iPhone, think about the consequences.