Foxconn tragedy highlights the anger and mistrust of many migrant workers

By Jennifer Cheung

The man at the centre of the dispute, Zhang Tingzhen, sat quietly during the heated and at times angry debate between his father and the lawyer for his employer Foxconn on the level of compensation Zhang should be awarded after a work accident left him with severe brain damage.

The argument took place on the morning of 30 October during an arbitration hearing in Shenzhen, not far from the Foxconn factory compound where the accident occurred, and centered on precisely who Zhang’s employer was at the time of the accident last year.

Zhang, a 26-year-old engineer from Henan, had signed a labour contract with Jizhun Precision Industry, a Foxconn subsidiary in the neighbouring city of Huizhou last August, and was later sent to Hong Fu Jin Precision Industry, another Foxconn subsidiary in Shenzhen, for training. Foxconn claimed that Zhang was a Huizhou employee, while the family claimed he was employed in Shenzhen all along. According to Zhang’s father, the difference in compensation between the two jurisdictions could be as much as 300,000 yuan.

But the dispute went much deeper than what after all was a technicality. Apart from the pain and anguish of seeing their bright and successful son largely paralyzed, with no memory and only able to utter a few simple words, the Zhang’s believed they had been badly treated by Foxconn ever since the accident, and that the accident itself was entirely preventable.

Zhang Tingzhen suffered an electric shock and fell from a ladder and suffered massive head trauma whilst fixing at light at the Shenzhen facility on 26 October 2011. Zhang’s father claimed that as a qualified engineer, earning more than 4,000 yuan a month, his son should not have been sent to fix a light. Moreover, he said, inadequate precautions were taken to avoid an accident and that his son was not even wearing gloves at the time.

Zhang’s father said there was a 90 minute delay after the accident before his son was finally taken to the local hospital just one kilometer away. The hospital could not cope with the severity of the injury and the family demanded that Zhang be transferred to a better facility. It was not until 16 November however that Zhang was moved to the Shenzhen Number 2 People’s Hospital. Zhang’s father further alleged that the hospital’s medical care was inadequate and that Foxconn staff interfered in his treatment.

It was in January this year that Zhang’s father realized, after receiving his son’s work injury certification, that his son would only be compensated as a Huizhou employee. And then in July, Foxconn informed him via text messages that Zhang needed to suspend medical treatment in Shenzhen and return to Huizhou so that his level of disability could be assessed by the local authorities there - a necessary step for determining the amount of compensation.

Zhang’s father, fearing that such as move would harm his son’s recovery, refused and hired a lawyer to represent the family in their legal battle with Foxconn. The lawyer was originally from Henan and specialized in corporate rather than labour law but the father still preferred him to a specialist lawyer in Shenzhen, even though some of the best labour rights lawyers in the country are based in Shenzhen. The father wanted a lawyer from his hometown simply because he did not trust anyone in Shenzhen, believing they would favour Foxconn in the dispute.

His suspicions about local favouritism were aggravated further when the scheduled arbitration hearing on 24 October was abruptly cancelled. The arbitrator was supposed to notify all relevant parities three days in advance of any cancellation but instead only announced the cancelation on the morning of the hearing, citing “the significant influence of the case which called for a collegiate bench” rather than a single arbitrator.

Even though Hong Fu Jin finally agreed to pay the difference between the Huizhou and Shenzhen’s work injury compensation rates, and the company’s lawyer took a sympathetic and conciliatory position when the arbitration hearing finally got underway, Zhang’s parents were still clearly very aggrieved at the treatment they had endured over the last year and made a show of their anger by verbally abusing the lawyer and pelting him with eggs.

Zhang’s father later explained that he also wanted to sue Foxconn for the company’s practice of paying social security contributions based on his son’s basic salary (2,500 yuan) rather than his full salary (4,086yuan). Foxconn’s lawyer responded that such a practice was entirely legal.

Eventually however the family did agree, at their lawyer’s urging, to the arbitrator’s suggestion of a mediated settlement, thereby avoiding more lengthy and expensive legal proceedings.

It is impossible to verify all of the Zhang’s accusations. Foxconn’s spokesman in Shenzhen was unavailable for comment and the doctor who treated Zhang Tingzhen declined to discuss the case. But if in fact Foxconn was even partially at fault and had admitted that it was at fault over the accident or at least taken a more actively conciliatory role from the very beginning, Zhang Tingzhen’s case would probably have been resolved a lot earlier.

Moreover, the problems caused by Foxconn hiring workers in one place and then transferring them to another factory depending on the needs of production are certainly not unique to this case. This routine practice has actually led to several disputes over the last few years with workers from one jurisdiction being paid or compensated at different rate from other workers in the same factory. In January this year, for example, 150 Foxconn employees in Wuhan staged a rooftop protest after they were ordered to move to a new production line.

More recently, Foxconn has been hit a massive riot in Taiyuan, strikes in Zhengzhou and the use of child labour in its Yantai plant.

In its dealings with the media and the public, Foxconn can appear to be reasonable and responsive to problems as when they arise but it is very obvious that many employees see a very different face of the company every time they start their shift.

As a 26-year-old production line worker who makes iPhones at Foxconn’s Xi’an plant said on her microblog yesterday; “Foxconn’s workshop culture is a culture of criticism” (富士康的车间文化就是骂文化). “Every day at work we live with the sound of criticism,” she said.

In Shenzhen, Zhang Tingzhen has now left the hospital and moved into a nearby dormitory with his parents. Zhang’s father says he is recovering slowly and can now walk up and down stairs slowly with assistance. “He can now sing simple kids’ songs,” he said.

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