China, Apple and the labour process

China, Apple and the labour process

By Martin Hart-Landsberg

July 19, 2012 — Reports From the Economic Front, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author’s permission — Contemporary capitalism, driven by the competitive pursuit of private profit, tends to produce a stream of innovative goods and services.

Of course this drive for private profit generally ensures that these goods and services will be the ones that are most likely to satisfy the desires of those with the greatest purchasing power. Less appreciated is the fact that this pursuit of private profit also tends to promote production processes that are based on exploitative work conditions. A case in point: Apple products.

Much has been written about Apple’s international production system, in which components produced in Japan, South Korea, Germany and the United States are sent to China, where a Taiwanese company, Foxconn, employs hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers to assemble them into final products like the ipad and iphone.

Much has also been written about the brutal labour regime employed by Foxconn. What follows are some extracts from a recently published study by Pun Ngai and Jenny Chan on work conditions at Foxconn (“Global Capital, the State, and Chinese Workers: The Foxconn Experience”, Modern China, 38:4, pp. 383-410).

While getting ready to start work on the production line, management will ask the workers: “How are you?” (你好吗). Workers must respond by shouting in unison, “Good! Very good! Very, very good!” (好, 非常好, 非常好).

This militaristic drilling is said to train workers as disciplined laborers. Production quotas and quality standards are passed through channels down to the frontline workers at the lowest level of the pyramid.

Workers recalled how they were punished when they talked on the line, failed to keep up with the high speed of work, and made mistakes in work procedures. Several women workers attaching speakers to MP3-format digital audio players said,

After work, all of us—more than a hundred persons—are made to stay behind. This happens whenever a worker is punished. A girl is forced to stand at attention and read aloud a statement of self-criticism. She must be loud enough to be heard. Our line leader would ask if the worker at the far end of the workshop could hear clearly the mistake she made. Oftentimes girls feel they are losing face. It’s very embarrassing. Her tears drop. Her voice becomes very small. . . . Then the line leader shouts: “If one worker loses only one minute [by failing to keep up with the work pace], then, how much more time will be wasted by a hundred people?” . . . .

Factory-floor managers and supervisors often give lectures to production workers at the beginning and the end of the work day. After working a long shift of a standard 12 hours (of which four hours are illegally imposed, forced overtime), workers still have to stand, for often 15 minutes to half an hour, and listen to speeches, although the content of such meetings remains the same: the management evaluates the production target of the previous shift, reminds workers of the tasks they need to pay special attention to, and reiterates work rules and regulations.

Workers know too well that branded electronic products are expensive and there is no margin for mistakes.

Several workers at a mobile phone assembly workshop commented,

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