Foxconn workers fatalistic about uncertain future

When Zhang was informed last month that his unit at Foxconn’s Shenzhen facility would be relocating to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, he mulled his options for a while and decided to quit.

“I’m from Zhejiang,” he explained, “there is nothing for me in Sichuan; I’d prefer to go back home and get a job there. The economy in Zhejiang is not too bad these days.”

The 25-year-old university graduate plans to leave at the end of the month but before he can do so, he will have to buy himself out of his contract. Not only will Zhang (a pseudonym) get no compensation from Foxconn after severing his employment contract, he will actually have to compensate Foxconn.

“I was hired straight from college on a three and a half year contract,” he said. “I’m only three years into the contract, so I have to compensate the company for leaving early.”

The Labour Contract Law stipulates that employees only have to give 30 days notice in writing if they want to terminate their employment contract; they should not incur any financial penalties, but Zhang said the contract he and other university graduates had signed with Foxconn contained such penalties.

“Of course, I’m not happy about it. But it is only a few hundred yuan, so I’m not really that bothered,” he said.

While Zhang, who earns around 3,500 yuan a month as a skilled technician, could afford to buy his freedom, most production line workers say they will have to accept what ever deal the company offers them.

Foxconn reportedly plans to establish a new plant in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, eventually employing some 300,000 people, and many Shenzhen employees expect to be relocated to the new plant, or to Foxconn’s existing facilities in Tianjin, Chongqing or other inland cities, as the company scales down production at its flagship Shenzhen facility.

Most workers interviewed said they would be happy to relocate, particularly if it meant working closer to home.

“I come from Henan. If I can earn the same there as I do here, of course I will go,” a 19-year-old production line worker said.

A manager who had been at Foxconn for nearly ten years explained; “for most of the young production line workers here, being in a big city like Shenzhen is of little consequence because they can’t earn enough to take advantage of what the city has to offer. Life here is basically no different for them than life inland.”

Many skilled workers, on the other hand, are electing to stay in Shenzhen, and are looking for openings at rival electronics companies such as Huawei, located literally just across the road from Foxconn.

“Many of my colleagues have already moved to Huawei,” Zhang said. “Pay and conditions are about the same. There is still a lot of pressure to perform your work on time, maybe even more. But they want to get ahead and earn money, so Shenzhen, for them, is still the best place to be.”

For those who opt to move with Foxconn to a new city, however, several questions remain. Will the pay and conditions for workers in Henan, for example, be the same as in Shenzhen? Will those new employees recruited in Henan get equal pay for equal work?

A recruitment advertisement in Henan claims workers in Zhengzhou will get a minimum of 2,000 yuan a month, but Shenzhen employees are skeptical. “No one knows for sure what the salaries inland will be. Maybe the overtime rates will be less, maybe there will be more deductions, who knows?” a production line worker from Hubei said.

Another unknown is whether or not those workers who do relocate will be able to transfer their social security account to their new location. Most employees said they had not even thought about the problem but assumed they would have to cash in their account before leaving Shenzhen and start all over again.

And will employees be compensated if they refuse to relocate and lose their job as a result? The Labour Contract Law states that employees should be compensated one month’s salary for every year of employment if their contract is terminated by the employer, but few workers said they would really push for compensation if the company refused to pay. “What’s the point?” one young worker said. “Foxconn does whatever it wants to do. If you don’t like it, it is easier just to walk away.”

Foxconn will not shut down its entire Shenzhen operation immediately; tens of thousands of employees will remain in the city for several years to come. But will their pay and conditions improve?

Several workers said they had not yet even received the 33 percent increase in basic pay announced by the company on 2 June, and were still earning just 900 yuan a month, this despite the fact that Shenzhen’s minimum wage was raised to 1,100 yuan per month on 1 July.

Most production line workers said they would wait to see if they passed their three month evaluation, which would give them a basic salary of 2,000 yuan from 1 October, before making a decision about their future.

“Of course, if I get 2,000 I will stay,” a new recruit said. “But, even if I don’t, 1,200 yuan should be okay. We’ll see.”

For those who do stay, there is little evidence that Foxconn’s militaristic management style, which was heavily criticized during the spate of suicides at the plant earlier this year, is easing up. “We are working about ten hours a day now, a bit less than before, but the pressure to work as quickly as possible is still the same,” a production line worker who had been at Foxconn for two years said. “The attitude of the boss is still the same,” he added.

The only major change at Foxconn over the last two months has been the installation of suicide nets and high wire-mesh fences on the top of factory and dormitory buildings – clearly visible from outside the complex. Moreover, Foxconn has stated that it will no longer pay compensation to the families of employees who committee suicide. For workers unhappy with their life at Foxconn, clearly suicide is no longer an option.
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