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Archive for May, 2012

UNL study scrutinizes worker dignity at Foxconn, Apple plants

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

AP photo

In the global controversy that followed a rash of worker suicides at Foxconn Technology Group – the Taiwanese company whose huge Chinese factories assemble the world’s most popular consumer electronics – the firm and corporate partners such as Apple repeatedly invoked the notion of safeguarding employees’ dignity.

But the maker of everything from iPhones to PlayStations can’t simply manufacture self-worth through pay raises, overtime limits and better assembly lines in some factories, a new University of Nebraska-Lincoln study suggests.

For lasting change, Foxconn could provide legitimate paths to worker dignity – by limiting verbal abuse and developing management and discipline practices that help employees save face. Perhaps most importantly, it can improve employees’ lives away from work, said Kristen Lucas, a UNL assistant professor of communication studies and lead author of the study.

Following a cluster of suicides in 2010, when 14 young migrant workers jumped to their deaths from buildings on the Foxconn campus in Shenzen, Apple reiterated its commitment to dignity across its global supply chain. Noticing that the follow-up audits never addressed dignity, Lucas and her colleagues analyzed hundreds of media accounts of life at Foxconn.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Business Ethics, found that Foxconn’s “total institution” structure – an all-encompassing campus where employees work, eat and sleep – imposes unique indignities on workers that dehumanizes them and devastates their self-respect. Until this “total institution” structure and its effects on employees are given serious consideration, any changes to shop floor labor practices will be merely putting a bandage on a much deeper injury, Lucas said.

“There’s a disconnect there,” said Lucas, whose work focuses on how organizational practices and discourses affect workers’ sense of self-worth. “There’s a lot of talk by Apple and Foxconn about dignity, but the corrective measures being taken aren’t getting to the heart of worker dignity. Better wages are undoubtedly important. But wages alone aren’t going to counter the daily stigma, abuse and round-the-clock discipline that are taking their toll on employees.”

The working conditions of Foxconn’s migrant Chinese employees came to light after the string of suicides at its Shenzen campus and at other sites, as well as a fire in a different factory last year that killed four employees.

The study relied on a variety of international media outlets that were able to provide first-hand accounts of workers’ lives in their coverage, as well as details obtained from independent non-profit organizations.

The stories described a highly controlled environment for workers in all facets of their lives: a prison-like existence where excessive overwork was common, and demanded of workers at any time because they lived within the walls of the organization.

The analysis of coverage also notes a harsh organizational culture at Foxconn that restricted employee movement, severely punished transgressions such as talking or giggling, kept workers from developing meaningful relationships by strictly arranging their living situations, and required attendance to activities outside of work time.

“That’s what is unique about this situation,” Lucas said. “In the United States, you may work on an assembly line and hate it. But at the end of your shift you go home to your family. At Foxconn, they never really get separation. They eat in a company cafeteria, use company recreation facilities and go to sleep in a company dormitory.”

The situation is complicated by rapid social changes amid China’s young adults, the study notes. Many disagree with the Maoist ideals of their parents and grandparents; for a new generation of Chinese workers, the notion of extreme sacrifice for the greater good has given way to more individualistic ambitions.

In response to audits by Apple and the nonprofit Fair Labor Association, Foxconn recently agreed to reduce workers’ hours and stabilize their pay. Apple said earlier this month it would help pay for improving Foxconn’s factories and assembly lines.

Meanwhile, Lucas and her colleagues offer a framework to take the reforms further both in the short- and long term. Notably, the study suggests the company loosen its grip on employee control by allowing them more autonomy in non-work areas of their lives.

They could start by allowing more freedom in the Foxconn factory dormitories – for example, giving employees control over choice of roommates – and by encouraging employees to engage in off-campus activities during their non-working hours so they can have a life outside the control of the company.

The researchers also encouraged Foxconn and its business partners to define and assess worker dignity, and keep attention on developing and upholding a shared set of culturally sensitive ethical labor principles to protect employees’ sense of self-worth.

“If Foxconn and its partners are truly concerned with employees’ dignity, then they will need to dig deeper and figure out what makes for a dignified experience from the perspective of the workers themselves,” Lucas said.

In addition to Lucas, the study was authored by Dongjing Kang and Zhou Li of Ohio University. Both are graduates of UNL.

Contact: Kristen Lucas, assistant professor of communication studies, (402) 472-6924 or

Space law expert: Before humans step into commercial spaceflight, laws need to make next leap

Friday, May 18th, 2012

SpaceX’s Tuesday launch of its Dragon capsule atop its Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station opens a new era in commercial spaceflight. It also raises a new round of questions about what laws govern private space companies and what legal obstacles may impede future human space travel, a space law expert said.

If commercial space carriers’ shuttling of supplies to the ISS, as with Dragon, evolves into the ferrying of astronauts and other human passengers into space, then a new set of legal issues will emerge, said Frans von der Dunk, professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law.

“For a commercial vendor, bringing cargo to the International Space Station is relatively simple if it’s correctly arranged and includes the involvement of the partners in the ISS venture, if appropriate,” von der Dunk said. “However, the next step already looms.”

That phase involves human cargo, he said. In our post-Space Shuttle world, only Russia currently has the capability to bring humans to the station and back, which likely will bring rapid rise to commercial space companies with plans to transport astronauts to the ISS.

Von der Dunk said that practice would raise a whole new set of legal concerns, including the legal status of the craft, crew and passengers; issues of third-party liability; and the limit of validity in a courtroom of operators’ “informed consent” protection.

Currently under FAA regulations, commercial space operators are allowed to operate without properly certified craft and as long as their passengers fly under a simple “informed consent” regime that basically waives liability towards such passengers, he said. “But if NASA is going to let SpaceX fly its astronauts, is it going to accept such informed consent?” von der Dunk asked. “That’s doubtful.”

As long as “informed consent” is not defined in greater detail, he said, it will raise legal concerns regarding technology transfer under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITARs), which control the export and import of defense-related articles and services. This could be relevant if, for example, a non-U.S. passenger is instructed to comply with informed consent on the technological safety features and history of the commercial craft.

Questions also persist about how the current “informed consent” legal framework would hold up in court against actions such as gross negligence or willful misconduct, he said. Von der Dunk said determining, in much greater detail, what “informed consent” means in space cases will be essential to answering many of the issues.

Finally, von der Dunk called for substantial international consultations on the activity, owing to the enterprises around the globe that are readying commercial space initiatives. He noted that Virgin Galactic has plans to launch similar flights from variousother places on Earth such as Sweden, Space Adventures from Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, and XCOR is teaming up with SXC to fly from Curaçao, he said.

“While moving from cargo to manned ISS services may seem a small step for business, it requires a major leap for the space lawyers,” von der Dunk said.

Contact: Frans von der Dunk, professor of space law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, (402) 472-1240 or

UNL in the national news: April 2012

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
National media outlets featured and cited UNL sources on a number of topics in the past month. Appearances in national media included:

Eric Berger, law, was quoted by The Associated Press on April 21 following the federal government’s request that Nebraska turn over its supply of a lethal-injection drug. The story appeared in dozens of media outlets around the country.

Kristin Blankley, law, was quoted April 29 by the Baltimore Sun about the benefits of consumer arbitration, and how some aspects of the process can work in the consumer’s favor.

Jeannine Burge, career coach at the College of Business Administration, was quoted April 11 by US News & World Report about how college students can use social media platforms to attain jobs after graduation.
Beth Burkstrand-Reid, law, was quoted in an April 19 New Scientist article about a controversial technology that could mean the end of the “biological clock.”

Chris Calkins, animal science, was quoted in an April 2 story in the Christian Science Monitor about the “pink slime” backlash and what was next for beef.

Ken Cassman, agronomy and horticulture, was quoted in an April 25 Voice of America story about how most organic crops fall short on yields, and how that means feeding the world organically would require clearing more land.

The latest addition to the digital Civil War Washington project, which is headed by Kenneth Winkle, history; Kenneth Price, English; Susan Lawrence, history; and Elizabeth Lorang, English; was featured in a number of outlets in mid-April to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Washington, D.C., Compensated Emancipation Act. Articles appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, film studies, was quoted in an April 3 story at E! Online about Hollywood’s recent fascination with fairy tales.

Peter Harms, management, had his research into how narcissists tend to thrive in the context of job interviews widely covered in April. Coverage included articles in Forbes, MSNBC, Nature, the Huffington Post and dozens of other media outlets around the country.

John Hibbing, political science, had his research into the genetic origins of political leanings featured in an April 7 CNN article. On April 10, his work was featured in New Scientist.

Gary Kebbel, dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications; and professor of practice Matthew Waite were featured in a Fast Company article on April 26 about how flying drones are the future of journalism.

Chancellor Harvey Perlman was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s April 10 coverage of efforts to reform the NCAA rulebook.

Donde Plowman, dean of the College of Business Administration, was quoted and had her research cited in an April 3 Wall Street Journal article about teaching and studying mindfulness in the business world. On April 25, she appeared in USA TODAY, discussing the benefits of differentiated tuition. On April 30, she appeared on the Fox Business Network’s Markets Now program to discuss differentiated tuition.

Joe Robine, a master of science candidate in natural resource sciences, was quoted in an April 2 story about how student applicants should weigh colleges’ various partnerships.

Robert Schopp, law, had his research cited and was quoted April 29 by The Associated Press about New York protesters’ so-called “justification defense.”

David Sellmyer, physics and astronomy, was quoted in an April story in National Geographic about how U.S. scientists are seeking alternatives amid a rare-earth dispute with China.

Mark Svoboda, School of Natural Resources, was quoted in an April 9 Wall Street Journal article about the nature of wildfires in New Jersey.

Susan Swearer, school psychology, appeared in an April 21 article by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times about school bullying.

Robert Taylor, University of Nebraska Press, was quoted in an April 2 story in the New York Times that discussed at length UNP’s national reputation for publishing high-quality baseball books.

Mike Wagner, political science, appeared on an April 17 segment of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered about Bob Kerrey’s uphill senate bid in Nebraska.

Sean Whipple of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center had his and a University of Nebraska at Kearney colleague’s research on dung beetles featured in a number of media outlets in mid-April, including National Geographic News.

Tom Winter, classics and religious studies, received wide attention in early April after a picture of him riding his skateboard to class became a top post. Media coverage included Mashable, where Winter light-heartedly critiqued the internet memes that sprung up around the Reddit post.

National media often work with University Communications to identify and connect with UNL sources for the purpose of including the university’s research, expertise and programming in published work. Faculty and administration appearances in the national media are logged here.

To offer suggestions regarding potential national news stories or sources at UNL, contact Steve Smith at or (402) 472-4226.