It was a different scene today at the Shenzhen, China-based Foxconn plant, which employs over 300,000 workers who assemble everything from iPhones to video game accessories. Today Foxconn held a rally designed to promote living and loving life and to generally boost the morale of workers – who only a few months ago were as unhappy as a worker can be in a plant that expects the average employee to work 80 hours of overtime a week.
Just a few months ago morale was so low that more than a dozen employees committed suicide, prompting the company to install safety nets on the top of its buildings. But more importantly, it made the company face the reality that productivity has to be balanced with the well being of its employees.
While things are not perfect at the Shenzhen plant – and other Foxconn-owned operations throughout China – things have gotten a little bit better; workers have gotten pay increases, job rotations to try out other work in the plants, counseling for those that want it, and housing that is more regionalized so that employees feel less homesick. The outreach to the workers – at the very least – shows that Foxconn has been shaken by the bad press, suicides and the general perception that the company doesn’t care about its massive workforce.
"For a long period of time I think we were kind of blinded by our success," said Louis Woo, special assistant to Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn’s parent company. "We were kind of caught by surprise."
But Woo admits that Foxconn has not immunized itself from future suicides; it’s a tough feat when you have 920,000 employees spread across 16 factories in China. And the challenges will continue to mount as the company increases its workforce to 1.3 million workers sometime next year. In fact, earlier this month a woman jumped to her death at the Shenzhen plant.
"No matter how hard we try, such things will continue to happen," he said.
But some workers are reacting positively to the newfound, positive focus of the company, like 18-year old Huang Jun, a worker at the Shenzhen plant.
"In the past, from the time we started work until when we finished, we would not really have a break. But now we’ve been given time to rest," said 18-year-old worker Huang Jun. "If I can get off work early enough and have a little time for fun, then I feel a bit better and less stressed out."
While rallies like the ones being held at Foxconn plants all over China are helpful for boosting morale, workers want more fun activities to do that aren’t work related: they want Foxconn to organize more recreational stuff like sports or karaoke events. But activists, like Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the China Labor Bulletin (a labor rights group based in Hong Kong), think Foxconn needs to use a basic formula to make things better for all employees:
"I don’t think today’s event is going to achieve anything except provide a bit of theater," said Crothall. "Basically what Foxconn needs to do is treat its workers like decent human beings and pay them a decent wage. It’s not rocket science."