The riot that caused one of Foxconn's factories to close down on Monday was definitely big news, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. We're heard for years that working conditions at Foxconn aren't exactly the best, with labor groups frequently bringing the company to the public's attention. Those who have Foxconn assemble their products have performed numerous investigations into the working conditions at the factory, and it isn't uncommon to see anonymous Foxconn workers discussing the more negative parts of their jobs on various news sites.
Foxconn officials may have been able to get things under control relatively quickly, but today labor experts are warning that riots like this could happen again. The Washington Post has interviewed a number of these experts, with some pointing to increased pressure on workers as one of the major reasons for the riot on Monday. Why is there increased pressure on workers? Because the pool of uneducated workers in China is shrinking, meaning that there are fewer people for Foxconn and other companies like it to potentially hire.
Of course, we also need to take the time of the year into account - the iPhone 5 launched to massive consumer demand last week, and with Windows Phone 8 and the holiday shopping season both on the horizon, many other companies will soon be rushing to get their latest handsets on shelves. The Washington Post points out that these jobs rarely require anything other than an employee who is fast and accurate at all times, and these days, management is having a difficult time keeping the intensity of the job under control. "The companies haven’t figured out how to manage that intensity," said University of Michigan China labor expert Mary Gallagher. "It’s intense because of the precision required. It’s intense because of how quickly technology changes and newer models are demanded. And while the number of workers is shrinking, you have the pressures on them mounting."
Wang Zhiqian, a former line worker-turned-recruiter for the company, sees it a different way. According to him, it isn't so much the lack of workers (and therefore an increase in pressure on existing employees) that is the problem, but rather the main issue is that factories like Foxconn aren't good companies to work for in the first place. Zhiqian says that management is "a mess," work days are often long, workers aren't allowed to talk to one another, and guards have made a habit of abusing their powers. Ultimately, it's "spiritual emptiness" for the workers at Foxconn which leads to their unrest.
Whatever the cause, experts are warning that this riot could lead to similar problems at other Foxconn factories if these issues aren't addressed in a meaningful way. Companies like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft have been stepping in from time to time to tell Foxconn higher-ups to shape up, and those interventions have led to some minor improvements. In order for things to change in a significant way, however, something big needs to happen, and that big thing might just have been Monday's riot. Here's hoping it's enough to get Foxconn to realize that for the good of everyone involved, a major shift needs to occur. Stay tuned.
[Image via Reuters]