Oct 1, 2013

A visit of Stephie Jobs to Shenzhen

This month's blog post has a different focus from most of our others, because it concerns the working conditions in Foxconn, Apple's main supplier, and the terrible injuries inflicted on China's (largely rural migrant) workforce. Qiu raises the question of whether a female Steve Jobs would tackle this horrendous human attrition. So, this is not so much about redressing the gender imbalance in professional computing work, more about asserting and protecting the human rights of computing assembly workers. It is a devastating read.

By Jack Linchuan Qiu, associate professor, School of Journalism and Communication, the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Had Steve Jobs been a woman — let’s call her Stephie — I'd take her to the Second People's Hospital of Shenzhen (Guangdong Province, China), a place I've been visiting once a month — sometimes once a week — in the past year. There lies Tingzhen Zhang, who lost his left brain in an industrial accident at Foxconn.

Foxconn is Apple's main supplier, employing 1.4 million workers in China alone. It manufactures about half the world's electronics each year. If China is the "world's factory", then Foxconn is the "electronics workshop of the world".

Stephie must go to the hospital because Shenzhen is where most of her gadgets are put together; because she must have watched the Mike Daisy show, at least its online version, and because she might wonder what the heck is going on there. She must go, as I need a woman to talk to Tingzhen's relatives.

Tingzhen, like most his peers, is from the rural hinterland. Due to work injury at Foxconn, he now walks with difficulty and he only has the intelligence of a one-year-old. His whole family has come to take care of him, find out what happened, and obtain justice. Every time I visited, his father kept talking to me: what a wonderful person his son used to be, how outrageously Foxconn treated them, why he thought the local officials were sympathetic, but incompetent.

«A conversation between Tingzhen’s sister and Stephie Jobs may well inspire a whole new world beyond capitalism, a better world for workers and for humanity»

His mother and sister seldom talked to me though, likely because I'm a man. They smiled, brought me water, never tried to interrupt dad. But I know they need people listening to them, talk to them, as well. A few months ago, driven by despair caused by Foxconn's refusal to help, Tingzhen's sister, Hongling, even tried to commit suicide.

— "Suicide?!" 
— "Yes, Stephie." I’d say. "Foxconn is known for its workers killing themselves, as much as it's known for making your Apple products. Thirteen people jumped from tall buildings in 8 months in 2010. Never before had this happened in the entire history of industrial capitalism, anywhere in the world."
— "Hongling, I'm sorry." 
— "No, you don't...", would reply Hongling after a long pause. "You have no idea how helpless we were." 
— "I’m really sorry. Can you tell me more? Is there anything I can do?"

At this point, I'd leave, dragging Tingzhen's dad with me. He and I need to manage an on-line campaign, designed with our old-fashioned masculine impulse, to help the family sustain their legal battle. If they win, it will be the first time Foxconn China ever gets defeated in a labor court. That may mark a new chapter for Foxconn, and for Apple.

Yet winning this case is perhaps not as important as the conversation between Hongling and Stephie. I hope her mother can join them, too. The results from that conversation may not just bring about a new company or two. They may well inspire a whole new world beyond capitalism, a better world for workers and for humanity.

Sisters of the world, think different.

Tingzhen Zhang before and after his injury at Foxconn. The company still withholds the ID card he wore around his neck, making it difficult for his family to establish his employment relationship with Foxconn Shenzhen.

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