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Analysts: Salary Increases May Not Ease Southern China's Labor Woes

  • Ivan Broadhead

After 10 worker suicides at Foxconn, the world's largest contract manufacturer of electronic products and China's biggest exporter, the company has nearly doubled salaries. But labor experts in Hong Kong warn that may not be enough enough to heal the emotional strains faced by China's factory laborers.

Since economic reforms began 30 years ago, China's growth has been sustained by its blue-collar workers.

Nowhere is this more evident than the southern province of Guangdong, home to an estimated 30 million migrant factory laborers.

Foxconn, a unit of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry, employs more than 300,000 young men and women in the province, making electronic products for brands including Apple, HP and Sony.

The attempted suicides of at least 12 staff since January - resulting in 10 confirmed deaths - have focused attention on labor conditions at Foxconn, and China generally.

Geoffrey Crothall of the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong rights group, says rewards for workers are hard-earned. "They will work anything from eight to 12 hours a day doing the same repetitive task for very low wages. The minimum wage is not a living wage in China. To get a barely living wage, they have to do up to 60 hours overtime each month," he said.

Most Foxconn recruits are in their 20s and hail from the countryside. Until the company's recent pay increases, most earned about $132 a month based on a a six-day week.

Staff receive free, albeit cramped, dormitory accommodation on the 600-acre campus. Meals are subsidized too. But Professor Paul Yip, the head of Hong Kong University's Center for Suicide Research and Prevention, says for many, the transition from rural to urban China is tough.

"Post- '80s, post-'90s babies: they enjoyed a pretty good life in the countryside based on the one-child policy. But when they go to [work in] the city, it is very strict management. That would not go down well among young people," he said.

Widespread media reports in southern China say Foxconn, like many factories, imposed tough efficiency and production standards on its workers, including silence at workstations. "There is no personal freedom. As young people, you can imagine, they love to engage, to connect. But if you are not allowed to communicate with one another for 12 hours every day? Think what life that could be," he said.

Yip sees the problem in terms of shortcomings in care, although Foxconn managers have said that while sad, 10 suicides in a worker population of 300,000 is a small number.

In response to mounting criticism, compounded by the company's attempt to make workers sign a contract not to kill themselves, Foxconn held a media tour of its facilities at the end of May. The company has hired counselors to help staff with any psychological problems, and safety netting is being installed to catch anyone throwing themselves from the factory roofs.

Foxconn on Sunday announced its second pay raise in a week. Starting in October and subject to performance standards, basic salaries at the Longhua plant will rise to $293, more than double last month's take home.

A company statement said the rise was to reduce the need for staff to work overtime, and to facilitate rest. Labor advocates such as Crothall say Foxconn salaries finally approach a fair living wage.

Professor Yip supports any fairer wage mechanism. But he says employers need to realize it takes compassion, not just money, to sustain a workforce's mental health. "Do not think the employee is a robot that can continually do routine work for 12 hours. Treat them with respect and then provide all the support and care they deserve. Without doing this, I do not think growth is sustainable, and I do not think social harmony can be achieved," he said.

China now is censoring suicide-related news about Foxconn, so it may be difficult for labor activists and others to determine if higher salaries and access to counseling are effective in reducing deaths.

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