Foxconn’s Other Product: Human Machine

Posted on April 11, 2012

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Foxconn, a Taiwanese company in South China, Apple’s largest supplier, is perhaps one of the most notorious companies in recent news. Employing 1.2 million Chinese workers and producing an estimate of 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics, the super company is also known for its most inhuman “super exploitation” of workers. Foxconn workers’ harsh working and living conditions have been reported extensively in mainstream media since earlier this year. These media’s reporting on Foxconn mostly focus on the company’s abuse and exploitation of its workers and those who have been crushed in this system, but we haven’t seen much reporting on the effects of the system on those who have survived or even excelled.

In a recent episode of a Chinese reality show Only You (非你莫属), where job seekers compete for jobs through live job interviews, Chinese TV viewers had a glimpse of Foxconn’s “military-style management” and what it could do to the employees through the first-person account of a mid-level manager working for the company. The 30-year old interviewee, named Zhang Fei, started working for Foxconn’s factory in Shenzhen as an entry-level employee after he finished technical high school, making 330 yuan ($52) a month. After twelve years working for the company, he is now an IT manager in charge of a team of fifty employees who are responsible for the entire network, communication facilities and security system for the factory.

Zhang Fei, an Foxconn employee, defends his company after his account of an incident of physical penalty that lead to his blacking out (click image for video in Chinese)

On the show, Zhang revealed that he once fell unconscious in the Foxconn compound. He told the audience what happened:

It was arranged that we were going to be “loaned” to another company that day. Usually, we were supposed to get up at six in the morning for a morning drill. This time, we didn’t know whether we were still supposed to participate in the drill, so we stood at the opening of the staircase, wondering what to do. Then the training officer saw us and pointed out that we didn’t participate in the drill as we were supposed to. [I thought] I had a good reason, so I tried to explain to him, but at this point, he said that [he must] penalize me and asked me to go running up and down the stairs. [I think] the military-style management doesn’t allow any excuse. Whatever the boss asks you to do, you must do it. … [I went] up the staircase on this side and came down on the other side. There were six floors all together. I ran for more than an hour, almost two hours, waiting for an order, that is, the order to stop, but it didn’t come. So I was thinking, as long as I didn’t have the order to stop, I must keep running. It turned out that the training officer might have carelessly forgotten about me. When finally somebody told me to stop, I suddenly passed out on the stairs. At that moment, I felt numb all over. It felt like that your face, your eyes, your brain, and every part of your entire body were numb.

What’s even more shocking is, Zhang did not see this treatment as abuse. Instead, he kept defending the company. Before he told his story, he already were saying that “it wasn’t the company’s fault… [but] maybe because I did something wrong.” When the host said after hearing his story, “I don’t think you were at fault,” Zhang responded, with a strong conviction:

This is the military-style management. From the team’s perspective, [if] you don’t perform as you are instructed to, if you don’t operated as you are instructed to, it surely is your fault. As an employee, you must [see this situation] from the team’s perspective rather than the individual’s perspective, because these are two different view points. When you stand on your ground as an individual, you will think that you’re always right, but when you look at it from the team’s perspective, you’ll realize that this may be your problem.

Zhang wants to leave Foxconn and become a career trainer, helping young people who have just joined the workforce become a competitive employee and plan their future. Here’s what he said to his “trainee” in a mock training session on the show:

Every new employee coming into a company must first form a spirit of teamwork that fits yourself. First of all, you must learn to listen [to your supervisor] and know how to behave properly. This is the most basic requirement. I’m not entitled to say “no” to the boss, so I can only obey. So obeying orders is the foremost requirement.

A “boss” on the show pointed out that Zhang’s management style and expectations from employees would work well in manufacturing industry. He said that with Zhang’s experience, he was in demand and would easily find a company that’d hire him. That’s true. The fact is, in reality, military-style management that controls almost every minute of a worker’s life so as to eliminate every trait of individuality has been adopted by many factories in China, not just Foxconn. This dehumanizing rigid control of workers, unfortunately, is where productivity comes from. It is what has brought astronomic profits to companies like Foxconn and put it ahead of other companies on the international market (read about Apple’s example in NYT).

The scariest thing about this dehumanizing culture of the manufacturing industry in China is that it doesn’t only exploits workers, it also changes them, like Zhang, who, working his way up from a lowest-ranking worker to a mid-level manager, has been completely molded into the system, with heart and soul. Having contributed to Foxconn’s big boss Terry Gou’s $5.5 billion, Zhang is now willing, actually, eager to promote Foxconn’s ideology that legitimizes dehumanizing exploitation and its huge human cost in pursuit for profits. Perhaps after all, that’s what capitalism requires in order to grow–the capital must not only control the workers’ bodies, but also their minds. And that’s what’s behind Foxconn’s, and Apples’, success.

“I found this company you work for is indeed very powerful. You worked there for twelve years, and now you’re brainwashed completely,” the host of the show said to Zhang, half-jokingly, after Zhang defended Foxconn. He was right, and that situation is unlikely to change any time soon.

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