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UNL study scrutinizes worker dignity at Foxconn, Apple plants

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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 klucas3@unl.edu.

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