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Chinese Sociological Review

ISSN: 2162-0555 (Print) 2162-0563 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/mcsa20

Manufacturing Suicide: The Politics of a World


Factory

Thung-hong Lin, Yi-ling Lin & Wei-lin Tseng

To cite this article: Thung-hong Lin, Yi-ling Lin & Wei-lin Tseng (2016) Manufacturing Suicide:
The Politics of a World Factory, Chinese Sociological Review, 48:1, 1-32

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21620555.2015.1062346

Published online: 17 Dec 2015.

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Chinese Sociological Review, 48(1): 1–32, 2015
Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN 2162-0555 print/2162-0563 online
DOI: 10.1080/21620555.2015.1062346

Manufacturing Suicide: The Politics of


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a World Factory
Thung-hong Lin, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan
Yi-ling Lin, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan
Wei-lin Tseng, Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan

Abstract: This article examines how global value chains (GVCs) have shaped
a world factory regime, based on the case study of the Foxconn group in
Shenzhen, China. We identify three features that characterize a world factory
regime: the GVCs’ impacts, the fragmented structure of corporate governance,
and workplace despotism, and propose a concept of “global fragmented despot-
ism” to explain changing labor conditions, workers’ suicides and resistance
uncovered in Foxconn since 2010.

In May 2010, the Chinese public was shocked by the official media reports
of a series of “jumping suicide incidents” involving migrant workers in the
Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, owned by the Taiwanese business group
Hon-Hai,1 the largest original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the world
(in terms of employment) and also the major producer of the iPhone and
iPad for Apple. According to the domestic and foreign media, there were
at least twenty-five suicide cases committed in the Foxconn factories
until the end of 2010. Reports of the suicides subsequently triggered more
workers’ suicides and widespread criticism on factory management, as well
as labor rights violations in China.
The jumping incidents stimulated scholarly investigations. However,
there exists a large theoretical gap between microlevel explanation of
workers’ social psychology, and macrolevel discussion on “working class
formation.” In this paper, we fill this void with a mesolevel analysis of

Address correspondence to Thung-hong Lin, 128 Sec., 2 Academia Road, Nankang,


Taipei, Taiwan 11529. E-mail: zoo42@gate.sinica.edu.tw

1
2 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

factory regime based on the case study of Foxconn. How did the operation
of Foxconn lead worker riots and suicides? In contrast to previous studies
on the “localistic despotism” in Southern China (Lee 1995), we focused
on the interactions among the global value chains (GVCs), factory regimes,
and the responses of workers. We argue that the politics of the world factory
at Foxconn is a missing link between the macrolevel and microlevel theoreti-
cal account for the labor issues in Foxconn.
According to the organizational features of the Foxconn Technology
Group, we term a world factory regime as “global fragmented despotism.”
“Global” means that the regime largely depends on the production cycles
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of GVCs. As a result, the corporate governance and labor process are


contingent upon the demands of brands (i.e., Apple). “Fragmented” refers
to the segregation of organizations resulting from the interventions of global
brands through their complex codes of conduct, as well as from the
multilevel labor regulations of multinational and local governments. The
fragmented labor process creates a leeway for arbitrary managerial power,
leading to widespread corporate corruption and workplace bullying in
Foxconn. In order to satisfy the demand from global customers, the factory
regime ignored the worker’s physical and psychological conditions. By
means of wielding capricious managerial power, the factory regime shaped
the “despotism” on the shop floor.

Analyzing World Factory Regimes

Foxconn Studies

Scholars research on Foxconn “jumping incidents” from two perspectives.


Some scholars, in a Durkheimian perspective, have attributed the incidents
to workers’ psychological alienation, lack of social support, and emotional
exhaustion at Foxconn (Li, Lin, and Fang 2010). According to the surveys
and fieldwork by Yang (2014), some institutional arrangements, such as the
household registration system (Wu and Treiman 2004, 2007), factory man-
agement, and “dormitory regime” (Smith and Pun 2006), are found to be
responsible for workers’ difficulties in finding fellow countrymen, making
friends, and maintaining relationships. In other words, the difficulties in
cultivating “social capital” resulted in the psychological alienation and
depression of the Foxconn workers. Other scholars, in a Marxian perspec-
tive, tend to link the jumping incidents and resistance of workers to the
despotic management and poor working and living conditions (Pun and
Chan 2012). They discussed the implications for class formation under semi-
proletarianization among the “new generation” of migrant workers, who
might not be able to return to their home villages but have acted collectively
to advocate for their rights (Pun and Lu 2010).
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 3

More broadly, the Foxconn jumping incidents are just the tip of the
iceberg of the increasing number of labor protests throughout China. The
Honda strikes, which also occurred in June 2010, for instance, have been
used as another case to illustrate the labor politics under authoritarianism
(e.g., Chan and Pun 2009; Chan 2010; Chan and Hui 2012; Chan 2012).
Moreover, attention had also been given to the roles of intellectuals
and nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs’) participation in investigating
the incidents and subsequent labor protests (Cairns and Elfstrom 2014; Hao
2014; He and Huang 2015). These studies show the growing labor movement
and civic engagement in China.
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Whereas prior studies have shed light on the poor labor conditions and
changing resistance of Chinese migrant workers, there obviously exist
analytical gaps between the microlevel psychological account and the
macrolevel process of class formation. In this paper, we propose that a
mesolevel analysis of organization of factory, which we believe is responsible
for the labor conditions, workers’ jumping incidents and other resistance.
More in alignment with the Marxian perspective, we extend Burawoy’s
(1985) analysis of the production regime to dissect the organizational
structure in Foxconn. First, we will review Burawoy’s studies to see how
he defines “manufacturing consent” and “hegemonic despotism.” Second,
we will parse Lee’s and Zhang’s research to see the changes of factory
regimes in China. Finally, we will point out how Foxconn is a hybrid factory
regime that consists of hegemonic and despotic elements, as well as
globalized and fragmented ones. We hope that our analysis will
fill the gap between description on workers’ social psychological
conditions and the narratives on the working class formation under global
capitalism.

Factory Regimes in China

Based on the revisit of the manufacturer in Southern Chicago where Donald


Roy worked in 1944, Burawoy ([1979] 2005) developed two ideal types of
factory regime, namely, despotic and hegemonic ones, to explain the histori-
cal change in labor processes from competitive to monopoly capitalism
(Baran and Sweezy 1966). According to Burawoy ([1979] 2005), in a factory
under monopoly capitalism in contrast to competitive capitalism, the
relations in production (labor process as a game), internal labor market,
and internal state (industrial citizenship and collective bargaining) had con-
tributed to what he called “manufacturing consent,” namely, the voluntary
obedience of workers that could alleviate class struggles. Burawoy (1985)
further pointed out that state interventions in the labor processes and social
welfare would lead to the transition from despotism to a hegemonic regime.
He argued that the deregulation of the labor markets and the retrenchment
4 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

of welfare states under globalization may undermine workers’ consent


to factory regimes, which can be referred to as “hegemonic despotism”
(Burawoy [1979] 2005: 264–5). This ambiguous subtype of factory regime,
however, has not been examined empirically.
China’s rapid economic growth has been driving scholars to examine its
impact on the changes of factory regimes (Walder 1986; Naughton 1995,
2007; So 2003). Comparing two factories belonging to the same company
in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China, Lee (1998) argued that, although
the Chinese government established some formal labor regulations that
are more effective than those of Hong Kong, local states colluded with
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the company and created an almost laissez-faire labor market for female
migrant workers. Enforced by the competitive labor market and substituted
by divisions of female workers’ local networks, the arbitrary management
power formed a despotic factory regime in Southern China. Lee further
pointed out that the interaction of gender roles, social networks, and labor
market conditions shaped the “localistic despotism” (Lee 1995, 1998).
Over the past two decades, some small-medium enterprises (SMEs) Lee
studied have grown tremendously to become largest-scaled ones in the
world, which can hardly be explained by the concept of “localistic despot-
ism” she originally developed. In contrast to SMEs, Zhang (2008) analyzed
some large factories in China’s automobile industry and found that, under
the dual-capital structure of a joint venture (i.e., Sino-Japanese) restricted
by state industrial policy, management adopted employment dualism by
using both formal contract workers and permanent workers side-by-side
on production lines, leading to a “hybrid” factory regime that combined
both hegemonic and despotic elements.
Such a concept of hybrid factory regimes may not be sufficient to capture
the key features of industrial organizations like Foxconn. In contrast
to local SMEs in the mid-1990s Shenzhen and the semi-state-owned auto-
mobile industry, the factory regime of Foxconn, owned by foreign private
investors, is much more globalized and fragmented, and has remained
despotic for most employees. Refining the labor process theories, we
conceptualize the specific industrial organization of Foxconn as a “global
fragmented despotism,” to be elaborated below.

Global Fragmented Despotism

For world factories, changes in production relations depend on the


production cycles of GVCs (Gereffi 1996). While the GVC literature
originates from the world system analysis, recent studies have emphasized
the positive aspects of the GVCs only, such as the mechanisms of techno-
logical diffusion and skill-upgrading in industrial development (UNCTAD
2013), and more recently, governance structures (Gereffi, Humphrey,
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 5

Sturgeon 2005), but have largely neglected political contexts, class struggles,
and exploitation in GVCs.
In consumer electronics GVCs, the power relationship is unbalanced
among the global brands, OEMs, and workers, resulting in the brands’
control of technology, uneven distribution of value, sweatshop-style
exploitation, and class struggles. These GVCs are the “buyer-driven” chains,
controlled by the brands, such as Apple, HP, Dell, Nokia, and Google,
rather than the OEM (Yang 2011). The changing demands of brands
typically disarrange the corporate governance and labor processes of world
factories (Lüthje 2004).
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To manage the competition of brand customers, Foxconn established at


least sixteen vertical business groups (BGs), each of which included several
business units (BUs), serving one or several customers of the same product
(e.g., desktop, cell phone, or server) (Pun and Chan 2012). Each BG is
largely independent in company registration, accounting and management,
and owned by a few groups listed on the stock markets in either Hong Kong
or Taiwan. Foxconn commands more than 600 firms, whose BGs and BUs
mostly operated in mainland China.
The intervention of brands is not the only source of a “fragmented”
factory regime. At Foxconn, the higher-level managers of the BGs are
Taiwanese, and the Chinese managers are discriminated against in salary
and chance of promotion. The discrimination and social exclusion in the
internal labor market has led to the “apartheid” inside Foxconn, and
has blocked information, such as reports of workers’ protests or suicide
attempts from the shop floor to the top management.
Moreover, the fragmented management is further enhanced by the
multilevel and trans-local labor regulations at the levels of both the central
government and local governments in China. To attract investments, local
governments (namely, Guangdong province or Shenzhen city) typically
make some special deals on labor and taxation regulations with foreign
companies via different bargaining processes (Lee 1998). As a result,
corporate governance is further decentralized and the extent to which legal
regulations are abided by varies substantially. For example, in Foxconn,
the management-wage seniority system differs by branches or factories.
The vertical and horizontal segmentation in world factories has yielded
some important consequences. Under a fragmented regime, each BG or
BU enjoys autonomy in managerial power and such a structure easily
nurtures vertical patron–client relationships inside BGs (and BUs), faction-
alism among BGs (and BUs), and corporate corruption. To monitor the
factory security and managerial factions and corruption among Taiwanese
expatriates, Foxconn has installed an Orwellian coercive apparatus called
the “Central Security Department” (CSD), which is mostly comprised
of mainlander staff members and responsible for factory security to suppress
contentious workers and inform the top leadership. The managerial tactics
6 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

of “divide and conquer” have caused distrust and segmentation between


Taiwanese and mainlanders. Accordingly, Taiwanese managers could hardly
monitor and regulate the operations of the local supervisors and forepersons
on the shop floor. Contrary to the image portrayed in the mass media,
Foxconn is not managed by a totalitarian system. Instead, the leadership
typically loses control of various BGs, BUs, local factories, and dormitories.
The fragmented regime coexists with the dictatorship of forepersons,
supervisors, and directors in the local factories, offices, and dormitories.
The industrial relationship at Foxconn has been heavily shaped by
the global fragmented despotism. For instance, the success of the iPhone
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5 in the market has led to large-scale relocations of assembly lines and


personnel across provinces, sometimes involving more than 10,000 workers.
The management typically assigns workers to assembly lines in need and
to local dormitories randomly. As a result, workers usually suffer from
isolation and alienation, and the turnover rate is high (according to an
interviewed manager, the rate is 7∼8 percent per month in Foxconn) (Yang
2014). Workers, especially migrant workers, must always be subject to the
arbitrary power and rule enforcement of managers and forepersons, who
also face harsh top-down pressure from their own superiors and clients.
Confronting the pressure from GVCs to the shop floor in Foxconn,
workers employ three strategies: loyalty, voice, and exit (Hirshman 1970).
The high-level managers, mostly from Taiwan, demonstrate personal loyalty
to their bosses and factions based on BGs’ division. The mid-level managers
and forepersons in charge of the shop floor, mostly recruited in China,
typically follow the directives of their bosses and tell on other colleagues.
However, if they are discontent with the job, unofficial industrial action
(also known as wildcat strikes) are undertaken. The low-level workers,
mostly migrants, may sometimes take collective actions as a way of resist-
ance, but more often, they resign from the company after a short period
of time, or in an extreme case, commit suicide, because they are not involved
in the social networks necessary for collective action due to frequent
relocations.
Table 1 summarizes the key features of global fragmented despotism in
comparison to other ideal types of capitalist production regime (i.e., despot-
ism, hegemonic regime, hegemonic despotism, and localistic despotism).
GVCs, multilevel complicated state regulations, and the ethnic discrimi-
nation inside are responsible for the chaotic and fragmented management
in Foxconn, and form the social foundation for the workers’ struggles,
turnover, and suicides. Such features are by no means unique to Foxconn
but can also be founded in other large-scale foreign-owned factories in
China (Kim 2013). Hence, the notion of global fragmented despotism may
contribute to a general understanding of industrial relations in large-scale,
export-oriented, and foreign-owned factories, particularly those located in
authoritarian regimes in developing countries.
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Table 1

Production Regime Typology under Global Capitalism

Hegemonic Hegemonic Localistic Global Fragmented


Despotism Regime Despotism Despotism Despotism

Role of the state Laissez-faire Welfare states Retrenchment from Laissez-faire at local Low standard
welfare states level and complicate
multinational,
national and local
regulations
Capitalist development Competitive Monopoly capital Globalization of Competitive Global Value Chains
monopoly capital (globalization at (e.g., Apple &
periphery) Foxconn)
Consent of workers Weak Strong Decline Weak Weak
Type of resistance Shop-floor conflict, Institutionalized, Disorganized Shop-floor conflict, Ethnic conflict,
wildcat strike internal labor (voice and exit) wildcat strike, exit wildcat strike, riot,
(voice) market and suicide, exit, and
collective occasional
bargaining informal
(loyalty) negotiation
Case study Roy’s factories Chicago (Burawoy Burawoy (1985) Shenzhen Shenzhen, 2010–
in Chicago 1979) (Lee 1995) 2014 (our study)
(Burawoy 1979)
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Method and Fieldwork

Before moving on to the next section, we would like to illustrate the research
method first. In July 2010, faculties and students from twenty universities in
China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan organized a research group to investigate
the labor abuse at Foxconn (Chan, Pun, and Selden 2013). The three
Taiwanese authors of this paper were involved in this research program.
Despite the general concern of the research group about labor conditions
(Pun and Chan 2012), the authors also used their unique advantage of being
Taiwanese to approach the management at Foxconn and gain an insider’s
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perspective.
From 2010 to 2014, we purposively sampled and interviewed more
than forty workers and managers from high and low levels of the company
hierarchy, including Chinese, Taiwanese, and American citizens, particularly
those who worked at plants located in Shenzhen and Chengdu. Most of
the interviews were conducted during summertime. We interviewed as wide
a range as possible of the Foxconn managerial hierarchy and strove to
balance the gender ratio. All of the interviewees agreed to be interviewed
and consented to the content being anonymously used in academic research,
and at least one-third of them were interviewed more than twice in different
years (Table 2). Through the longitudinal interviews, we followed the
changes in the industrial relationship in their workplace and analyzed the
associations among the global brands, politics of production, and resistance,
and worker suicides.

Global Value Chains in the Factory

Global fragmented despotism is shaped by the associations between brands


and manufacturers. In the past decade, Foxconn was Apple’s largest
manufacturing partner; the proportion of purchase orders from Apple was
40 percent of the total revenue of Foxconn in 2012 (Mishkin 2013). Brands
such as Apple receive a large amount of the profit, however. Kraemer,
Linden, and Dedrick (2011) analyzed the distribution of profits from Apple
product sales. Their estimation showed that the profit from an iPhone
is shared between Apple and component suppliers (including those in the
United States, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Europe). Apple receives
58.5 percent of the profit, and the component suppliers receive 14.5 percent.
Foxconn’s share of the profit is only 1.8 percent. Apple is considerably more
powerful than Foxconn in GVCs. Apple designs products and is involved in
the production process of suppliers, particularly the assembly lines of sup-
plied like Foxconn. Since April 2004, two BGs primarily worked for Apple:
The Integrated Digital Product Business Group (IDPBG) and Innovation
Digital System Business Group (IDSBG). These BGs were established in
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 9

Table 2

List of Interviewees

No. Sex Position Ranks BGs Nationality Site

T1 M Director (þ) >E11 Taiwan Guanlan


T2 M Director E11 G, H Taiwan Hong Hai
T3 M Senior Manager E11 B Taiwan Longhua,
Chengdu
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T4 M Manager E9 C Taiwan Longhua


T5 M Manager >E7 Taiwan Longhua
T6 M Manager E8 C Taiwan Longhua
A1 M Manager E8 C U.S. Longhua
T7 M Assistant Manager E7 Taiwan Taipei
C1 M Assistant Manager E7 PRC Guanlan
T8 F Project Manager E6 C Taiwan Longhua
T9 F Project Manager E6 C Taiwan Longhua
T10 M Project Manager E6 B Taiwan Chengdu
A2 F Manager >E4 C U.S. Longhua
T11 F Section Manager E5 A Taiwan Taipei
T12 M Section Manager E5 C Taiwan Longhua
C2 M Engineer E4 C PRC Longhua
C3 M Engineer E3 D PRC Longhua
T13 M Project Manager E3 B Taiwan Chengdu
T14 M Engineer E3 Taiwan Taipei
T15 M Engineer E3 C Taiwan Longhua
C4 M Team Leader E3 C PRC Longhua
T16 M Engineer E2 C Taiwan Yantai
T17 F Engineer E2 C Taiwan Longhua
C5 M Team Leader E2 C PRC Longhua
C6 M Engineer E2 C PRC Longhua
C7 M Engineer E2 E PRC Longhua
C8 M Engineer E2 C PRC Longhua
C9 M Engineer E2 E PRC Longhua
C10 F Administrative E1 C PRC Longhua
Assistant
C11 F Operator E1 D PRC Longhua
C12 F Team Leader O3 A PRC Guanlan,
Longhua

(Continued )
10 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

Table 2 Continued
No. Sex Position Ranks BGs Nationality Site

C13 F Team Leader O3 A PRC Guanlan


C14 M Operator O2 PRC Guanlan
C15 F Operator O1 D PRC Guanlan
C16 M Operator O1 F PRC Longhua
C17 F Operator O1 A PRC Guanlan
C18 F Operator O1 A PRC Guanlan
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C19 M Operator O1 A PRC Guanlan


C20 F Operator O1 PRC Longhua
C21 M Operator O1 PRC Longhua
C22 M Operator O1 PRC Longhua
C23 F Operator O1 PRC Guanlan
C24 F Operator O1 PRC Guanlan
(Administrative)

succession to conform to iPod regulations. After the success of the iPhone in


2007, IDPBG has focused on Apple products. However, IDPBG could not
handle Apple’s orders because of the success of the iPad in 2010. Foxconn
had to separate DSPG (BU) from IDPBG, and IDSPG worked solely for
Apple (Field notes, T3, C7).
One of Foxconn’s senior managers informed that “Apple not only
influences the regular producing process of OEMs, but also dominates
our internal management including the nominees of high-level positions”
(Field notes, T3). In August 2009, Apple reportedly asked Terry Gou, the
chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd, to demote Vice Chairman
Jiang Haoliang from general manager to special assistant, because he failed to
follow Apple’s instructions to reduce the costs of a component of the iPhone.
Foxconn would not receive any more orders from Apple if Gou did not follow
the request (Economic Observer 2010). As a manager (T3) stated:
“Obedience would be the precise term to describe the relationship with
Apple. If you want to work in this department, you have to be very tough
and perform well under pressure. Apple, which gives large and diverse orders,
is our main client. Moreover, Apple’s slyness is far beyond comprehension.
They usually come to us first to solve problems; however, if we are unable to
provide satisfactory replies, they have whoever else is in charge oppress us. Any-
way, the stark reality is that Apple does whatever it wants” (Field notes, T3).
The unbalanced relationship between Foxconn and Apple has partially
resulted from the reliance of the former on the latter’s technology. Although
Apple and Foxconn reportedly have had a cross-licensing agreement since
2007, one engineer (C3) in Research and Development (R&D) at Foxconn
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 11

stated that Apple handles the core products and only allows Hon Hai to be
the OEM: “We are responsible for only some software and for checking
censors to make sure the delicate buttons are able to work” (Field notes, C3).
To continually receive orders from Apple, Foxconn has to play by
Apple’s rules. For instance, at Foxconn, the workplace security and techno-
logical confidentiality are strictly maintained by the Central Security
Department (CSD). In the Foxconn factory located at Longhua, Shenzhen,
there are three access control systems leading to each entrance gate, and no
data storage devices or camera installations are allowed in the production
plants, among which the Apple’s Bus have the strictest regulations. Sun
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Danyong, a former Foxconn worker, was reportedly a victim of such strict


regulations on confidentiality and committed suicide in 2009. Suspected as
a theft of the iPhone 4 N90, Sun was interrogated and forced to admit steal-
ing under pressure. He killed himself later in order to prove his innocence,
accusing CSD security of bullying him in a letter he wrote (Tseng 2012).
Sun’s death is viewed as an omen of the chain suicides in Foxconn.
Because of a series of the jumping incidents in Shenzhen plants, Foxconn
was facing tremendous pressure from the outside. To handle orders from
Apple, Foxconn aggressively started relocating expanding its production
into Western China and other regions. For example, IDSGB in Chengdu
recruited 250,000 workers in June 2010, for the production line of Apple
products plants in Zhengzhou were established in September 2010 and
began the mass production of iPhones. Foxconn and Apple jointly invested
US$1.2 billion in Plants in Brazil (Tseng 2012). Thus, it seems that Foxconn
has tried any means necessary to keep relationship with Apple.
Foxconn workers often had to work overtime for the production of the
iPhone 5. If Foxconn received more orders from Apple, workers would
experience more pressure. An interviewee (C13) said “I was totally exhaus-
ted … the only idea in my mind was throwing those iPhone 5 s away.” Apple
tolerated no flaws, nevertheless. As the worker reported, “… if they found
any machine defects, we were in big trouble.” The media suspected that
the riots in Chengdu and Taiyuan were related to trans-provincial mobiliza-
tion, with laborers being requested to work overtime to meet the iPhone 5
deadline (BBC News 2012; Reisinger 2012).
Based on an analysis of the Apple–Foxconn GVC, brand owners
dominate global capitalism more than before, forcing OEMs (i.e., Foxconn)
to change their corporate governance and division of labor. This partly
caused the fragmented and chaotic structure, as well as the arbitrary
management of the world factory.

Fragmented Management

Fragmented management is another feature of global fragmented


despotism. First, management is vertically divided by the GVCs and the
12 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

BGs/BUs; such structures of corporate governance and the incentives lead to


rampant managerial factionalism. In our fieldwork, we realized that there
are more than sixteen BG under Foxconn, each serving various brand
owners in GVCs. Second, management is horizontally divided based on
gender and ethnicity, leading to distrust and a lack of communication
between managers and shop floor workers. Taiwanese expatriates and local
managers and workers are horizontally split and the power struggles and
antagonism are often seen in the workplace.
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Business Groups and Factionalism

A high-level manager (T4) informed us that Foxconn is still managed as an


SME at the top level, suggesting that the factory regime is far from being
institutionalized. Due to difficulty accommodating the multiple demands
of brand owners and the rapidly expanding bureaucratic structure, the top
leadership at Foxconn decentralized the power and allowed each BG to have
control in governing its own plants.
At Foxconn, the total revenue of BGs and BUs instead of profit is the
only indicator of performance. As a result, the Taiwanese leadership of
BGs and BUs compete to maximize their revenue, which is closely linked
to managers’ seasonal/annual bonuses and subsidies (Field notes, T5, C1).
This partly explains why the group aggregate revenues contribute to nearly
21 percent of Taiwan’s GDP, even if its profit margin was relatively low for
years (2.4 percent in 2013).
To boost revenue rather than profit, Taiwanese managers at each BG/BU
had control of human resources, technology development, sales, manufac-
turing, and part of the finances at each plant. Such a decentralized strategy
resulted in heterogeneity of management among BGs and BUs; staff
members with the same positions and seniority may be subject to different
standards for remunerations and promotions (Field notes, C7, C10).
Nevertheless, when the group reallocated employees among BGs and
BUs, a typical practice in response to rapid changes in the market, it often
resulted in difficulties and struggles between management and employees.
To follow clients’ requirements or to maximize revenue, each BG and BU
sometimes has to be divided or merged with others. The reorganization of
BGs or BUs, often involved the decisions about revenue redistribution,
top managers’ bonuses, and the belongings of clients, leading to power
struggles among Taiwanese managerial factions.
Therefore, the relationship among BGs was more competitive than
cooperative, heavily shaped by the incentive structure of the management
within Foxconn. As our interviewees (T2, T4, T6) mentioned, “the invasion
of the turf” occurs frequently, particularly when one BG needs to expand its
revenue. “Invasion of turf” sometimes refers to the taking over of a client or
the authorization of particular products. The competition results in
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 13

factionalism and political alliances among top Taiwanese management, as


such, at least five factions were reported to compete for power. Thus
Foxconn maintains flexible and fragmented internal structure. New BUs
may be established or dismissed abruptly as a result that clients raise new
demands, withdraw orders, or simply one faction wins in power struggles.

Internal Labor Markets and Coercive Apparatus


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Similar to the practice of internal labor market in American firms (Edwards


1979), Foxconn attempted to establish a dual structure to regulate BGs by
dividing employees into “engineers” and “operators.” The former included
managers and engineers and the latter were foremen and forewomen, as well
as unskilled workers. In most BGs, the “engineer” hierarchical system
ranged from E14 to E1 (varying among BGs) and followed the Taiwanese
military system, starting from vice chairman and moving downward through
general manager, vice president, director, manager, assistant manager,
junior manager, section manager, and team leader. According to our inter-
views, despite the various managerial titles in the employment structure,
“engineers” typically account for less than 15 percent of the total employees.
At the bottom of the world factory regime, the “operators,” ranging from
O3 to O1, were always migrant workers, for whom promotion from O1 to
O3 took two to three years, after which they could be foremen and
forewomen and supervise dozens of workers on an assembly line. Only
a few senior operators, mostly men, could be promoted to engineers, whereas
female operators who were promoted were suspected of having affairs with
their bosses. College graduates from Chinese universities usually started as
E1 s, and it took several years for them to be promoted to an E4, the highest
position that most Chinese college graduates could attain. Only a few Chinese
managers could break the glass ceiling to be promoted to E5–E7.
Taiwanese employees always begin as E3 s and monopolize the high-
level managerial positions at the levels of E7 or above. Hon Hai hires most
engineers and managers from Taiwan and dispatches them to Foxconn
China, who were protected by relevant employment laws in Taiwan; that
is, their wages and welfare were not regulated by the labor law or social
insurance policies of the People’s Republic of China. In contrast to
Taiwanese expatriates, their mainland colleagues received fewer benefits
and bonuses, with limited channels for promotion. Taiwanese expatriates
are almost guaranteed for promotions, decided by Terry Gou, whereas
the promotions for mainland workers are at the hands of high-level
managers from Taiwan.
It is difficult for Chinese employees to become senior managers. They
need to work for more than seven years at Foxconn to be considered for
a promotion to a mid-level (E4–E7) supervisor or manager position (Field
14 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

notes, C1). A notable case is that a mainland manager, after being promoted
to vice president, was attacked by allied Taiwanese managers and therefore
quit. Seeing the “glass ceiling” effect, local employees were less loyal to their
companies. They stayed only for the higher wages from overtime payment
and would not usually leave unless they received a better offer from another
company, thus employment turnout rates were very high at Foxconn.
Given the fact that high-level management positions were mostly
occupied by Taiwanese expatriates, Foxconn established the CSD, consisted
of mainland employees, to prevent Taiwanese managers from collusion and
corruption, as well as power struggles. Several high-level managers, for
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example, claimed that their cellular phones were frequently wiretapped by


the CSD. This allegation was confirmed in the Foxconn corruption case that
recently unfolded. According to the mass media, the Taiwanese clique in the
“Surface Mount Technology” (SMT) committee, which was formed to
centralize the purchase of machine tools in Foxconn, was found to receive
kickbacks. Based on the evidence collected by CSD for months, Terry
Gou called the police who arrested several top managers during office hours
in Longhua, Shenzhen. This case illustrates how corrupted managers
fostered their own networks and how CSD surveillance is used to check
against them (Wen and Liao 2013).
The tactics of divisions and rules led to a deep sense of distrust and
insecurity between Taiwanese and mainland employees. To avoid blame
and punishment from Taiwanese managers, the low-rank local managers
and forepersons tend to cover up the mistakes and mistreatment of workers
on the shop floor. They even attacked or set each other up. The antagonism
between expatriates and locals, to a certain extent, has ignored workers’
discontent and psychological pressure for years.

Despotism on the Shop Floor

Games on the Shop Floor

How did managers and workers in the world factory organize the shop
floor? Foxconn workers were paid a base salary per month, with
increments over time. The rate of remuneration usually was determined
by industrial engineers, many of whom were hired by the brand owners.
Some interviewees (C21 and C22) talked about the tension between indus-
trial engineers and workers, which was similar to that in Roy’s factory
described by Burawoy ([1979] 2005). If the brands’ engineers did not trust
engineers at Foxconn, they would intervene and change the division of
labor on the line to facilitate production, often instigating workers’ strong
resistance.
Whereas mistreatment of line leaders and security guards has received
public attention, direct violence is rarely applied to foremen and forewomen.
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 15

An interviewee (C22) mentioned that some workers beaten by line leaders on


the shop floor made violent reprisals outside the factory after work. To
avoid the risk of reprisals and to reward and discipline workers, line leaders
typically utilize their autonomous power in hanging shifts, dividing labor,
providing opportunities for overtime work, and fining employees for
mistakes. Others, who could have links to organized crimes, relied on other
means, such as organizing gambling and cheating junior line workers, who
then had to borrow money and thus obey management. Managers often
used abusive language to scold operators. According to interviewee C5,
a team leader at Longhua branch of Foxconn, said, “A line worker, who
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accidentally damaged a product, was continuously reprimanded by his line


leader, deputy supervisor, supervisor, section manager, assistant manager,
and manager. He was fired in the end, and the line leader and supervisor
received demerits.”
To cope with the pressure from managers and forepersons, production
line operators typically adopted a strategy very similar to the “making-
out,” a term that Burawoy ([1979] 2005) used to describe the game on the
shop floor. The Chinese government intended to set up a minimum wage,
to protect the wellbeing of marginal workers, yet the minimum wage was
too little to afford workers and their family a decent life in the cities. There-
fore, they have to rely on overtime pay to increase their incomes. Some of
them worked over time far more than 36 hours per month, the upper limit
set by the Labor Law of China (Pun and Lu 2010). Under these circum-
stances, we see a similarity between the Foxconn workplaces in twenty-first
century China and what Roy described in the midst of the twentieth century
America (op. cit. Burawoy [1979] 2005). According to Roy, the piece-rate
system would result in an “output restriction,” under which workers slowed
the production speed or hid their outputs collectively to prevent the indus-
trial engineers from increasing the production rate later. Foxconn workers
played a similar game in a slightly different way. To increase wages, they
wasted regular worktime intentionally to earn overtime pay. As one intervie-
wee said, “we ran personal errands on company time and completed the
workload off time so that we could receive extra money!” (Field notes,
C7). Foremen and forewomen had no intention of changing the rules
of the “overtime” game since they had also benefited from it. Thus the
“overtime” game was utilized in a way to compensate for the low base salary
at Foxconn, often leading to longer work hours against labor regulations in
most plants.

Manufacturing Suicide

The suicide rate among workers in recent years may be linked to the
despotism on the shop floor. Whereas the media and public tend to perceive
Foxconn as a sweatshop that wields military-style management, we argue
16 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

that the intervention from the global brand owners, together with Foxconn’s
fragmented governance, is an important institutional factor that causes
suicides. We use the story of a suicide survivor to illustrate this point in
the following.
Tian Yu, from a village in Hubei province, was one of the few suicide
survivors at Foxconn. Being paralyzed from the waist down and bound
to a wheelchair now, the young girl was optimistic and willing to share
her feelings to help us understand more comprehensively the contour of
suicides. Tian Yu was interviewed in Guanlan, another Foxconn plant in
Shenzhen, and had worked in Longhua for one month. Because of the
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grueling workload, she decided to quit this job. To receive her final payment
for the wage, Tian Yu was forced to produce her salary slip because the shift
leaders in both Longhua and Guanlan denied to pay her. On March 17, 2010,
Yu spent an entire day traveling back and forth between the two plants. To
make matters worse, she ran out of money and her cell phone service was
cut off. Walking 15 kilometers back to Longhua, Tian Yu was desperate,
jumping from her fourth floor dormitory (Chan, Pun, and Selden 2013).
As we argue, such tragedies are deeply rooted in the fragmented
and chaotic structure of the Foxconn group. In response to the harsh
competition in the market, BGs constantly adjusted the internal structure
and personnel allocation, sometime arbitrarily. As a result, there is no
coherent information and close collaboration within Foxconn. Moreover,
workers from the same provinces are often assigned to different dormitories
and workplaces to prevent them from forming social circles. Therefore,
depressed workers with emotional problems would be able to find a close
friend or acquaintance to talk to. Such a chaotic and individualistic system
of employment has resulted in a weak social network in the workplace. With
little support from social networks, many workers had difficulty dealing
with their mental health problems arising from either workplace or personal
life, culminating in suicide in some cases.
We analyzed thirty-nine suicide cases in 2007, which are listed in Table 3.
Similar to Tian Yu, most victims were younger than 25 years old, cross-
provincial migrants who left their hometown for the first time to work in
Foxconn (only one was from Guangdong). Some reports claimed that these
young migrant men and women, via a randomly assigned dormitory system,
were living in an atomized environment, and socially isolated. Even worse,
some suicide cases were due to bullies in the dormitory, in addition to those
bullies by forepersons and security on the shop floor.

The Management of Suicide Crisis

The jumping incidents were exposed to the public in mid-May, 2010; Apple,
Foxconn, and the Chinese government were all involved in the management
of the crisis. The Chinese government and Apple directly intervened in the
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Table 3

List of Suicide Cases in Foxconn in News Coverage, 2007–2014

No Date Suicide site Sex Age Birthplace Name Note of event

1 2007-06-18 N/A F N/A Zhejiang Hou Hanged himself in his Foxconn dormitory room.
2 2007-09-01 N/A M 21 N/A Liu, Bing N/A
3 2008-03-16 Yantai N/A 28 N/A Li N/A
4 2009-07-15 Guanlan M 25 Yunnan Sun,Dan-yong Without any evidence, the CSD (namely,
Environment, Health, and Safety department)
suspected that Sun stole one of sixteen
iPhone samples. During the investigation,
Sun was violently attacked, held in custody,
and unlawfully searched.
5 2009-11-04 Longhua M 23 Guangdong Tan, Guo-xi Tan’s director verbally abused him before Tan
was off duty. Humiliated, Tan jumped to his
death from the fifth floor of the plant.
6 2010-01-08 Langfang M 19 Hebei Rong, Bo Rong’s father speculated whether Rong was
bullied in the plant before his suicide.
7 2010-01-23 Guanlan M 19 Henan Ma, Xiang-qian Ma’s sister did not believe that her brother
committed suicide. She found a scar on Ma’s
forehead and chest and bloodstains on his
nose. Moreover, Ma once informed his family
that he was bullied at the plant. The police
stated that Ma’s death was an accident.

(Continued )
17
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18
Table 3 Continued
No Date Suicide site Sex Age Birthplace Name Note of event

8 2010-02-22 Langfang F 16 Hebei Wang, Ling-yan Suspected suicide or “karoshi” (i.e., death from
overwork). A doctor diagnosed her death as a
sudden cardiac death. Wang’s mother
recalled Ling-Yan’s last phone call, reporting
that her daughter complained about the
gloomy life in the factory, particularly her
inability to chat with others in the dormitory.
9 2010-03-11 Longhua M 20þ Henan Li One of the series of suicide jumpers.
10 2010-03-17 Longhua F 17 Hubei Tian, Yu After working for a month, everyone received
their wages except Tian. Exhausted and
desperate, she jumped from the fourth floor of
her dormitory building. Tian was one of the
few survivors of the Foxconn jumpers.
11 2010-03-23 Langfang M 23 Hebei Li, Zhuan One of the series of suicide jumpers.
12 2010-03-29 Longhua M 23 Hunan Liu, Zhi-jun One of the series of suicide jumpers.
13 2010-04-06 Guanlan F 18 Jiangxi Rao, Shu-qin One of the series of suicide jumpers.
14 2010-04-07 Guanlan F 18 Yunnan Ning One of the series of suicide jumpers.
15 2010-04-07 Guanlan M 22 N/A N/A One of the series of suicide jumpers.
16 2010-05-06 Longhua M 24 Hunan Lu, Xin One of the series of suicide jumpers. Southern
Weekly stated that this was the seventh
incident since January 2010. Lu’s friend,
Tseng, told a reporter that Lu repeatedly
stated that he was being followed and
threatened.

(Continued )
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Table 3 Continued
No Date Suicide site Sex Age Birthplace Name Note of event

17 2010-05-11 Longhua F 24 Henan Zhu, Chen-ming One of the series of suicide jumpers.
18 2010-05-14 Longhua M 21 Anhui Liang, Chao One of the series of suicide jumpers.
19 2010-05-21 Longhua M 21 Hubei Na, Gang One of the series of suicide jumpers.
20 2010-05-25 Guanlan M 19 Hunan Li, Hai One of the series of suicide jumpers.
21 2010-05-26 Longhua M 23 Gansu He One of the series of suicide jumpers.
22 2010-05-27 Longhua M 25 Hunan Chen One of the series of suicide jumpers.
23 2010-07-20 Nanhai M 18 Hebei Liu One of the series of suicide jumpers.
24 2010-08-04 Kunshan F 23 Jiangsu Liu One of the series of suicide jumpers.
25 2010-11-05 Guanlan M 23 Hunan He The “final” incident in the series of suicide
jumpers mentioned by mass media.
26 2011-01-07 Longhua F 25 Hebei Wang, Ling N/A
27 2011-05-26 Chengdu M 20 N/A Hou N/A
28 2011-07-18 Longhua M 21 N/A N/A N/A
29 2011-11-23 Taiyuan F 21 Shanxi Li, Rong-ying N/A
30 2012-01-01 Yantai M N/A N/A Jia, Peng-ran Working in CCPBG-CNP.
31 2012-09-12 Guanlan N/A 22 Heilong-jiang Yang N/A
32 2013-04-24 Zhengzhou M 24 Henan Yao The Foxconn labor union stated that Yao was
not an employee of Foxconn. Some union
members stated that Yao had not signed a
contract because he had been in the plant for
only three days.
19

(Continued )
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20
Table 3 Continued
No Date Suicide site Sex Age Birthplace Name Note of event

33 2013-04-27 Zhengzhou F 23 Henan Jin N/A


34 2013-05-14 Zhengzhou M 30 N/A N/A N/A
35 2013-12-26 Longhua M 28 Jungxian LIANG, Yong-chao Liang had worked at Foxconn for six months in
the logistics department. Based on Liang’s
pay slip, one of his colleagues estimated the
overtime at approximately 60 hours in
November and 88 hours in October.
36 2014-01-10 Longhua M 23 Hubei CHEN, Feng Before jumping from a factory building to commit
suicide, Chen left some words via Qzone, the
biggest social network site in China, to
express his disappointment to his family.
37 2014-02-18 Longhua F 21 Henan ZHANG, Qing-wen Zhang’s mother suspected that her daughter
was murdered because the local government
was angry at her (Zhang’s mother) appeal to
a higher court about the corruption. The
reason Zhang committed suicide was still
under investigation.
38 2014-07-27 Longhua M 22 Hunan KANG An assembly line worker at Foxconn since 2011,
Kang jumped from the seventh floor of a
dormitory building and died instantly.
39 2014-09-30 Shenzhen M 21 Guangdong XU, Li-zhi Xu jumped from his rental quarters. It was said
that he committed suicide because of
dissatisfaction with life.
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 21

“overtime” game on the shop floor, resulting in the immediate cancellation


of overtime payment in some BUs. While most interviewees expressed
their strong reservation on the change, this did not mean that they enjoyed
working overtime. As one worker (C7) said, “do you really think that I love
overtime? I will be pleased when my base salary is increased.”
Ironically, overtime payment that was once viewed as an advantage
compared to other factories is now a factor that provokes internal conflicts
and even stimulates strikes later on. To control their overall salary budgets,
many BUs have limited engineers’ salaries in order to pay more to the level
paid to operators. Entry-level (E1) engineers, for example, had almost no
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increase in pay except for year-end bonuses. In a certain sense, suicides have
led to the increase in operators’ legal minimum wage, which is at the expense
of the salaries of Chinese managers at low levels and forepersons on the
shop floor. From the fieldwork interviews, we learned that more “wildcat
strikes” occurred because Chinese managers, engineers, and foremen and
forewomen were dissatisfied with their decreasing incomes. They led strikes,
followed by their line operators.
Not until the exposure of the jumping incidents had the public noticed
that there was no labor union in Foxconn for years, which should be
established as stipulated by the Chinese Labor Law. Foxconn established
a union in March 2007, but it was seen as a “yellow dog.” The chairman
of the union was also Terry Gou’s executive assistant (Pun and Chan
2012). Most interviewees doubted the effectiveness of the union in protecting
labor rights.
After the jumping incidents, the union set up a hotline for workers to
voice their discontent. According to our interviewees, if the discontent is
on the dormitory conditions, the problems will be addressed immediately.
However, if workers complained about line management, they were often
fired afterwards (C21, C22). A Taiwanese manager (T7) expressed
his personal problems, but received a reply from the union that “we are
responsible for Chinese workers only” (Field notes, T7). In Chengdu,
as a gesture to show their concern with labor conditions, with the help from
local government, the union established some models of “youth apartments”
with gyms, swimming pools, and Internet bars. However, some workers
complained that, after the long work hours, they had little time to enjoy
the facilities. Hence, these observations, contradictory to each other, making
it difficult to evaluate whether labor conditions have improved after suicide
incidents were exposed to the public in Foxconn.

Workers’ Resistance

As narrated earlier, the restriction on overtime work helped to relieve work-


ers’ stress, but their total income received decreased at the same time. After
the new policy on overtime work was introduced, production line workers
22 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

made more complaints, and started more wildcat strikes. Moreover, to


process more orders for the iPad and iPhone 5, as well as to avoid public
attention due to workers’ suicides, Foxconn expanded its plants to inland
regions, such as Sichuan and Henan provinces, where local governments
were willing to embrace Foxconn’s investment and to serve as labor
recruitment agencies. Workers are redeployed from all over the country
when employees are insufficient to meet the demands. Such reallocations
have brought more chaos to internal management and created more
conflicts between managers and workers within Foxconn.
We analyzed seventeen cases that involved workers’ collective actions
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from 2010 to 2014 (Appendix Table 1). As we have seen, most disputes were
due to the decrease in income without overtime pay, the reallocation of
migrant workers to provinces where the minimum wage was set lower, or
the conflicts with local security in which the CSD was in charge. For
instance, in Hubei in January 2012, there were 300 local workers, one of
whom was an interviewee we met in Shenzhen (C11), but was transferred
back to Hubei, threatened to commit suicide after the denial of pay increase.
Similar protests occurred elsewhere, such as Chengdu (Apple Daily Hong
Kong 2012a), Taiyuan (Apple Daily Hong Kong 2012b), Chongching
(MyDrivers.com), Shenzhen (NetEase 2013a, 2013b), and Yantai (NetEase
2013c).
The features of these collective resistances, as scholars on the Chinese
“insurgency trap” (Friedman 2014; Gallagher 2014) have argued, departed
from institutionalized labor movements. Since official unions do little to
relieve worker’ plight, various forms of wildcat strikes and perturbations
occur. Most labor disputes in Foxconn occurred because of the long-
distance reallocation of workers for rush orders of brands, typically led by
forepersons and low-rank engineers, whose income was affected by the
restriction of overtime work and pay, whereas operators’ base salaries were
increased. In many cases, the variant compensation and promotion rules
between managers and workers among different BGs and BUs within
Foxconn have created employees’ discontent with regard to regarding
inequality, discrimination, and unfairness. All of which would not occur in a
transparent and well-organized company. In sum, the chaotic and fragmented
management, associated with the global market demand, particularly from
Apple, has instigated the resistance from workers in Foxconn.

Discussion and Conclusion

Existing sociological literature on workers’ condition in Foxconn has


focused either on workers’ alienation at the microlevel in the Durkheimian
perspective or on the class formation at the structural level from the
Marxian perspective. In this paper, we went beyond the divide and proposed
a new concept to characterize the world factory regime, and argue that
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 23

the world factory in China can be characterized as “global fragmented


despotism,” a subtype of capitalist production regime. By “global” we mean
it has the strong influence of global brand owners through GVCs;
“fragmented” referred to the vertical, horizontal, and geographical segre-
gation of employees; whereas “despotism” referred to the coercive apparatus
and arbitrary managerial power on the shop floor. Based on the extended
and productive fieldwork we conducted from 2010 to 2014, we described
the involvement of the global brands in the factory, chaotic management,
and their linkages to workplace despotism.
We argue that some features of the global fragmented despotism were held
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responsible for workers’ suicides and resistance in Foxconn. The clients’ harsh
demands, particularly from Apple, forced Foxconn to constantly reorganize
its corporate governance structure and reallocate assembly lines. As with the
Durkheimian studies, we found that workers, atomized in the world factory
regime would have been left in helpless situations. To avoid the public
concern about workers’ suicide incidents, Apple and Foxconn adjusted
the strategies to reallocate some plants to inland areas, to change the
distribution of salary and benefits between forepersons and line workers,
and to expose more inequality and discrimination within the firm. Ironically,
such changes have created even more discontent and resistance among
workers, as well as mainland managers. In this sense, under the global
fragmented despotism, the management of crisis did not ease the tension
but sparked more collective resistance.
To some extent, the Chinese government shall be held responsible for the
laissez-faire policy in the labor market. The arbitrary management inside the
factory was made possible by the large pool of rural migrant workers who
are socially excluded based on their household registration status (hukou)
(Jieh-min 2010). When the local government attempted to enforce the labor
law in response to the public outcry of the jumping incidents, through
implementing the legal minimum wage, albeit very low, and restricting
overtime work, such changes ironically created more discontent among
workers and stimulated more wildcat strikes and riots, because workers’
total compensations decreased as a result.
Given the saturation of the electronic products market, the world factory
regime is facing its own profit-margin crisis. Without an increase in R&D,
Foxconn cannot effectively upgrade its industrial technology. Its revenue
is gradually shrinking due to Apple’s alliance with other OEMs and the
political pressure from the Chinese government on the protection of labor
rights. Foxconn may also face further challenges of the shortage of migrant
labor and rising labor resistance, intensified by the decentralized structure of
global fragmented despotism, leading to under the diminish of its revenue.
Workers’ suicide and resistance, which have caught much attention from
the public and media, are the result of the practice of global fragmented
despotism, exemplified in Foxconn factories.
24 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

Nevertheless, the decline of Foxconn may not end the exploitation under
global capitalism. Many preconditions to foster the model of global
fragmented despotism, namely a competitive global market dominated by a
few powerful brands, the low standard for state regulations and social welfare
under authoritarianism, and the large supply of rural migrant workers con-
tinue to exist in China, especially in inland provinces, perhaps also in many
other developing countries to which global capitalism is expanding, may con-
tinue to exist for a long period of time. Therefore, our concept and study of
Foxconn may contribute to the factory regime analyses of GVCs in the future.
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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the anonymous interviewees, who may still exist or
work at Foxconn. We benefited from the help and comments from Pun
Ngai, Jenny Chan, May Szeto, YC Chen, Parry Leung, Daniel Yang,
Xiaogang Wu, Huilin Lu, Zhong Hua, Jieh-min Wu, Jay Chen, Szu-chien
Hsu, Mingsho Ho, and Chris Tilly, as well as the participants of the Labor
Movement Session at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Sociological
Association. We thank the anonymous reviewers for their excellent
suggestions. Rico Yang provided valuable research assistance.

Funding

The study is supported by the Taiwanese Ministry of Science and


Technology project no. 103-2420-H-001-002-MY2.

Note

1. Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. was founded by its Chairman Terry
Gou near Taipei in 1974 as a manufacturer of electrical components. In 1988, the
Foxconn Technology Group was created as a subcompany in Longhua, Shenzhen,
and moved to the Science and Technology Park in 1996. It has become a major
subcontractor for Dell, Nokia, HP, and other global brands since the beginning of
the 2000 s. As the largest private employer in the world, Foxconn hired almost 1.3
million workers in 2013. In this paper, we use the term “Foxconn” to refer to firms
in which the Hon Hai group invested heavily. Foxconn has been recognized as a typical
world factory in China.

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About the Authors

Thung-hong Lin is an associate research fellow and joint appointment associate


professor at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, and National Tsinghua
University. He is interested in social stratification, sociology of disasters, and
labor studies.
Yi-ling Lin contributed to the fieldwork and writing of this paper. She is now
a research assistant at Academia Sinica.
Wei-lin Tseng’s master thesis studied the Foxconn workers and contributed to
the concept and fieldwork of this paper. She worked for the Economic Daily
News as a journalist and is now a freelancer. (She is finding a job now. Thus
the short-bio has to be revised later.)
28 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

Appendix Table 1

The News Events about Collective Labor Disputes in China, 2010–2014

Year/Month Location No. of people Event

2010/11 Foshan 6,000–7,000 Foxconn workers protested their low


wages and opposed the factory’s plan
to move the plants to inner provinces in
China. They claimed that they had
asked high-level administrators to raise
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their wages. However, they were


threatened with dismissal. One
anonymous worker stated that a notice
warned them not to go on strike or they
would lose their jobs. Another worker
said that their monthly salary was lower
than promised.
2012/01 Wuhan 150 Foxconn workers threatened mass
suicide, and one of them was our
interviewee. The workers were
eventually coaxed down by Foxconn
managers and local Chinese
Communist Party officials after two
days on the roof of their three-floor
plant in Wuhan. The latest protest
began on January 2 after managers
reassigned approximately 600 workers
to a new production line, making
computer cases for Acer, a Taiwanese
computer company.
2012/01 Yantai 1,000þ Foxconn Yantai workers went on strike
because of the disparity in salary
among workers. A high-level executive
explained that this was a new rule.
The factory administrators separated
workers to disperse the mob. One of
the workers stated that all workers were
directed to raise the salary to
RMB1,750 in September. Although all
of the workers had been promoted to
E1 (the lowest level of Foxconn official
employees), they did not receive the
commensurate salary.
2012/01 Jiangxi 1,000þ On January 11, approximately 1,000
workers staged a protest. They went
on strike in the factory on January 10 to
protest the low wages, unbalanced pay
raises, terrible food, and rigid
management. Some workers were
reportedly arrested during the

(Continued )
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 29

Appendix Table 1 Continued


Year/Month Location No. of people Event

demonstration. One worker said that


everyone was still required to deduct
RMB9 from their own food stipends and
RMB80 from their wages.
2012/03 Shanxi, 100þ Workers at the A9 plant in Taiyuan,
Taiyuan Shanxi, went on strike because of the
wage adjustment. Some of the workers
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stated that the wage adjustment was


only for administrators and technicians.
E1 workers in particular did not benefit
from the wage adjustment.
2012/04 Wuhan 100þ To protest low wages, approximately 100
workers gathered on a roof and
threatened to jump from the building.
According to an anonymous worker,
these workers were working at DT2,
PCEBG (Personal Computer Enclosure
Group). After combining the DT2 from
Shenzhen and Yantai, the Wuhan
administration began to regulate
additional overtime hours while
demanding that employees increase
production. Thus, the income was
reduced.
2012/06 Chengdu 1,000þ As two security guards were pursuing a
thief and shouting for help, some
workers who resented the guards
gathered to interfere a disturbance.
Approximately 1,000 workers threw
trash bins, stools, washbasins,
firecrackers, and beer cans from the
dormitories, destroying facilities and
causing chaos. The factory called the
police, and some workers were
arrested.
2012/09 Shanxi, 2,000þ In a riot in Taiyuan, Shanxi, thousands of
Taiyuan workers destroyed various items and
even set fire to cars. Local police
officers suppressed the riot; reportedly,
at least ten people were killed.
Anonymous source stated that the riot
was caused by workers who
dissatisfied with the adjustment of
overtime regulations. Foxconn workers
from various provinces were
assembled in Taiyuan to meet the
production deadline of the iPhone 5
release. The riot originated from a fight

(Continued )
30 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

Appendix Table 1 Continued


Year/Month Location No. of people Event

between Hunan workers and security


guards. The Hunan workers were
beaten severely, which caused the riot.
After drinking alcohol, the Hunan
workers quarreled with the security
guards. Other workers heard the noise
and then gathered, smashing all the
safety facilities in the plant and igniting
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the security guards’ electric bikes. At


2:00 AM, local and antiriot police
arrived to beat and detain workers. The
severity of the riot prompted Foxconn
to close the plant for 1 day, and the
traffic had to be controlled within 2
kilometers of the plant.
2012/10 Chenzhou 3,000–4,000 China Labor Watch reported that the riot
at Foxconn-Chenzhou occurred
because of rigid quality inspection.
Workers from the production lines
called a strike to protest the
unreasonable iPhone 5 quality
inspections. Workers and inspectors
had quarrels and fistfights during the
strike. Because some iPhone 5 users
complained that the paint was peeling
off the outer shell, Apple directed
Foxconn to address the matter. Thus,
Foxconn adopted a considerably more
rigid quality inspection to check the
outer shells. Another possible factor
contributing to the riot was the
requirement to work on holidays.
2012/11 Shenzhen 5,000 Liberty Times Net reported that a riot
occurred at Longhua, Shenzhen, in
which approximately 5,000 workers
gathered to protest the bullying from
security guards. However, Foxconn
announced that the conflict was not a
riot but a personal gambling quarrel.
2013/01 Beijing 1,000þ Approximately 1,000 workers gathered in
a restaurant, demanding that the high-
level executives respond to the arrear
of year-end bonuses. Because the
factory did not answer the questions
clearly and directly, the workers went
on strike until midnight. The local
government assigned the police to
control the situation.

(Continued )
CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW 31

Appendix Table 1 Continued


Year/Month Location No. of people Event

2013/06 Longhua, 3,400þ Innolux Display Group temporarily shut


Shenzhen down in May for a month. According to
informed sources, at least 3,000
workers were rerouted; however, they
rejected to be assigned to different
plants. Instead, the involved employees
requested that the company lay off the
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staff to allow them to gain


compensation.
2013/07 Shenzhen 200 Although a Foxconn spokesperson denied
the strike, 200 CCPBG workers did not
show up for work. They walked directly
to the headquarters of the labor union,
shouting the slogan: “Raise our wage!”
One of the participants said to a
reporter that Foxconn raised the wages
by 20 percent for technicians in a
specific department, but others did not
receive equal raises. Moreover, the
annual bonus was not paid on time.
Working overtime was another factor
that contributed to the strike. Foxconn
limited the overtime; however, it
reduced the total wage.
2013/07 Foshan 1,500þ Approximately 1,000 workers gathered in
the halls and refused to work, stating
that Foxconn did not follow the original
contract and continued to postpone the
end of the workday.
2013/09 Yantai 300–400 A massive fight broke out at Foxconn’s
Yantai factory during the Mid-Autumn
Festival. More than 200 workers from
Guizhou beat workers from Shandong.
Although the military police were called
to quell the riot, another violent
outbreak occurred the next day.
Reports claimed that the riot led to
three deaths, injured at least twenty
workers, and resulted in hundreds of
arrests. The riot was reportedly caused
by a quarrel in an Internet cafÉ
between two female workers.
2013/12 Chongqing 100 Nearly 100 Chongqing Foxconn workers
went on strike because of low wages.
The 2-day strike occurred because of a
dispute over pay and uneven raise
adjustments.

(Continued )
32 CHINESE SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW

Appendix Table 1 Continued


Year/Month Location No. of people Event

2014/06 Chongqing 800þ More than 800 Chongqing Foxconn


workers were involved in a dispute over
severance pay. The plant plans to
terminate the notebook assembling
business. However, sources reported
that “operators” received no adequate
severance pay, whereas “engineers”
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did.
Note: we collected the news about Foxconn workers’ collective actions from English,
Chinese, and Taiwanese mass media, but discovered all the relevant news uncovered after
the series of “jumping incidents.”