The growing Foxconnification of the workforce
Last month, the spectacle of dozens of Chinese electronics workers gathered on the roof of a factory dormitory in Wuhan and threatening to jump en masse if management did not adhere to their wage promises seemed as extreme as it was troubling. Yet it was shrugged off by many Western observers as exemplary of the outer limits inherent in China’s colossal drive to create an urban middle class from the hundreds of millions of rural poor.
Contrast that with last week’s federal lawsuit raised by an American of Chinese descent, Xuedan Wang, against the Hearst Corporation: Wang, a 28-year-old college graduate who toiled as an unpaid intern at Harper’s Bazaar magazine, alleges the company violated U.S. labor laws by refusing to conform to wage and hour rules (full disclosure: I work for a few companies who hire unpaid interns). Her hopes of turning the suit into class-action litigation dovetails with a torrent of emerging similar claims over companies and institutions increasingly exploiting young people as an unpaid labor force.
At first you may assume the cases are incompatible as lodestars of our interdependent global economic predicament: How can one really compare the luxury problem of a middle-class American fashionista to the travails of aspirant blue-collar laborers in China?
Yet their quandaries are bound up in a larger economic phenomenon I call Foxconnification (so-named after Foxconn, the notorious electronics manufacturing subsidiary of Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision Industry Company Ltd, which supplies Apple’s iPhones and iPads and whose work demands provoked not just the aforementioned threatened mass suicide but also several independent suicides): the individual tendency toward willful self-enslavement in order to survive a harsh labor market.
The “freedoms” promised by globalization and technology are, to a degree, illusory. Yes, you may now immediately gratify your need to observe news in real time, or contact and do business with anyone almost anywhere, or just watch kittens wear goofy hats. But a macro consequence of worldwide commercial linkage suggests a trap. When so many countries plug into an international trade system that drives information- and service-led growth in advanced countries and pushes manufacturing and industry in emerging nations, where labor is cheaper, workers will progressively be forced to make ever larger tradeoffs to survive, including compromising on their health and safety, as well as the payment reward for their labor.
This is hardly a neo-Marxist critique. Even though workers in China are steadily familiarizing themselves with and demanding the trappings of Western-style middle-class consumerism, they have to put up with brutal conditions to achieve them — working environments that tantalize employees with the promise of upward social mobility only to grind them down until death seems the preferable option. China is not alone in building its middle class through vicious employment structures, of course; individuals in such countries as India, Peru, Brazil and Thailand, for example, must make the same fateful job calculus. Furthermore, Chinese observers claim that Foxconn’s setting is a definitive improvement on that of other, smaller manufacturers, as well as on the circumstances of rural poverty that drive eager citizens to continue taking these jobs in spite of what they know.
Indeed, pundits and economists ranging from Nicholas Kristof to Jeffrey Sachs to Paul Krugman have made the case for sweatshops as an integral step in the financial ascent of developing countries. To paraphrase Krugman, a bad job is better than no job, especially when such work lifts you and millions of others out of destitution so that you may eat. But what happens when countries emerge from developing status into mature economies and exploitative labor remains a prevalent strategy? America’s capitalist titans are not above mimicking some of China’s employment tactics; so how can we expect progressive policies to arise in countries as their economies strengthen? Certainly, rule of law is not enough, and neither is the so-called American Dream.
In the West, employment conditions may not currently incite the same levels of despair, but they are finally starting to raise awareness and anger. With youth unemployment at 18 percent as fewer paying jobs open up, individuals must turn to unpaid internships just to get a foot on the ladder, thus exposing themselves to rampant illegal behavior by companies taking advantage of eager workers. The current lawsuit against Hearst by Wang marks an inflection point that highlights both each country’s labor laws and each country’s lack of adherence to them as corporate interests dominate. Like the U.S., China has minimum wage laws, laws against withholding wages, and health and safety regulations. As in China (and many other countries), U.S. companies often see fit to ignore these laws for the sake of higher profit.
American observers watching the Wang case have opined that unpaid internships are a necessary boon for providing young people with the kind of contacts and training they need to move up, a mild twist on the ideas of Krugman, Kristof and Sachs. But whereas the sweatshop economy theory holds some weight as it applies to developing countries, it loses complete integrity if applied to the world’s largest economy. Furthermore, U.S. labor laws — though long overdue for an update as they must apply to an Information Era — are still reasonably clear on what constitutes work that qualifies as an internship and thus is exempt from salary. Nevertheless, hundreds of organizations continue to flout the law, knowing full well that they are not alone; that interns whose free work contributes to a corporate bottom line rarely complain out of fear of retribution; and that compliance policing is nonexistent. (This is amply documented in Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.) In light of the millions of unemployed Americans who see no other option but to offer their services for free at the whim of possibly unscrupulous employers, Wang’s brave move should be perceived as an important blow on behalf of the 99 percenters.
It has none of the drama of threatening to jump off a building, but it serves as an important milestone as the U.S. considers how to adapt to a globalized system in which it must serve as an example, lest it be accused of hypocrisy. As this worldwide, interlinked, eco-system of labor evolves, leaving millions of people struggling to catch up to it if they even can, the question we need to ask regardless of where we live is: to what extent will we allow ourselves to be willingly reduced to robo-labor? Wang’s example of speaking truth to power demonstrates that as individuals we can attempt to stem the tide of Foxconnification.
PHOTO: Workers from Foxconn take part in a “Treasure Your Life” rally inside a stadium at a Foxconn plant in the southern Chinese township of Longhau in Guangdong province, August 18, 2010. REUTERS/Bobby Yip