Gongchao Worker-Researcher Talks Chinese Industry, Foxconn and Detroit

Critical Moment interviews Ralf Ruckus

The impact of deindustrialization on the Motor City is no secret to those of us who live here. The ruins of the Packard plant and the overgrown fields on the city’s east side serve as a sort of visual poetry testifying to what happens when jobs and people leave a once thriving metropolis. But what about the other side of the equation?

Detroit may be the poster child for a city where the “fathers of industry” have become deadbeat dads, but what about China, where a big share of the world’s manufacturing now takes place? Most of us know the nation has become an economic juggernaut over the last few decades, but beyond that its hard to offer specifics — especially when it comes to how the country’s boom years have affected the working people who keep its manufacturing engine running.

This past April, though,  Detroiters had a rare opportunity to learn more about this situation: a speaker named Ralf Ruckus from Gongchao, an organization that seeks to raise awareness about working conditions and resistance in China, gave a presentation at the Trumbullplex theatre.

The talk focused on the factories of Foxconn, an employer that produces high-tech gizmos for Apple and other popular electronic brands. Foxconn became famous a few years back after despondent workers jumped to their deaths in protest of the manufacturer’s deplorable working and living conditions.

Critical Moment interviewed Ruckus following his Detroit presentation. We share the results of our conversation here.

Critical Moment: What is Gongchao?

Gongchao is a group of people who share the interest in social struggles in China and want to spread more first-hand information on forms of social resistance, organizing, debates on gender and class in China around the world. In that sense we are researchers, but more in the sense of “worker researchers” as we do not see ourselves as detached outside observers but are facing proletarian conditions ourselves.

Critical Moment:  Tell us how you ended up in China.

Ralf Ruckus: I started to learn the Chinese language about 10 years ago, because me and my friends knew little about the social struggles in China and had no contacts there. At the same time, China had already become the global center of manufacturing after the massive industrialization and migration in the 1990s. We had also heard about the huge struggles of urban workers against the restructuring of the state industries which peaked in 2002, but had no direct connection.

CM: What sort of work were you doing there? Where did you travel?

RR: I have been to many parts of China, but mostly to cities in Central China, the East, and the South. Others in and around our group spent more time in villages. We connect to local activists, workers as well as academics, to find out more about the social situation, the way people organize, their struggles against exploitation at the workplaces etc.

CM:  What is Foxconn for those who may not know and what relationship does it have to the global economy?

RR: Foxconn is a contract manufacturer of electronics, producing for all major brands including Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Sony, Amazon, and many more. With about 1.4 million workers in China alone it is the biggest manufacturing employer. Foxconn stands for the globalized economy, as it assembles around 40 percent of all electronic consumer goods of the world, and it is a central part of the respective world-wide production and distribution chain.

courtesy of gongchao.org

On the factory floor. Photo courtesy of gongchao.org

CM: Tell us about the suicides at Foxconn facilities.

RR: Starting in 2010, dozens of Foxconn-workers have jumped down from factory buildings, committing suicide as an act of desperation and resistance. The suicides are a result of their precarious existence as workers in the Foxconn’s production machinery.

I hope more workers realize that giving away your life does not help and that there are other forms of resistance that they can engage in that can lead to improvements and even the overthrow of the factory system: collective organizing, strikes and uprisings.

CM: What’s the relationship between the Chinese government and Foxconn, in particular, and the industrial economy there, in general?

RR: Foxconn is a Taiwanese enterprise but has most of its production facilities in mainland China. As the biggest private employer there it is important for the regional economies. Chinese municipalities compete for Foxconn investments, as we could see during the recent relocation of factories from the East Coast to low-wage areas in Central and Western China. The state supports Foxconn with infrastructure and tax rebates, and even recruits workers for Foxconn which is suffering from the labor shortage in many industrial centers in China.

CM: What can you tell us about the lives of workers in Foxconn factories in China.

RR: Despite recent improvements in wages and living conditions, Foxconn workers still face miserable conditions. The wages are low, the machine rhythm in the factory is murderous, and only young people can keep up.

They work 10 to 12 hour shifts, leading to exhaustion and despair. Most workers live in dormitories on the factory ground or just outside. These dormitories can be seen as an extension of the shop-floor, with workers being under constant management control, subject to penalties for any breach of the rules.

CM: Could you give us a few examples?

RR: Okay, just a few examples:

1) The work in some departments is dangerous, leading to many accidents and injuries on fingers and hands. In other departments, workers handle toxic substances, like aluminium dust in the production of casings or toxic cleaning solvents for screens. Many workers get sick, and Foxconn does not compensate them properly.

2) Recently, many Foxconn-workers have been facing the relocation of their factory, so they had to move to other provinces and had to deal with a further decrease of their low wages.

3) When Apple released it iPhone 5 in the fall of 2012, customers in the US complained about scratches on the back casings. That translated into higher work pressure in the Foxconn-factory in Zhengzhou, Henan province, where most of the iPhones are produced. The workers there had to work long overtime hours anyway to produce millions of iPhones for the release, suffer from lack of sleep and physical exhaustion. These are just a few problems.

courtesy of gongchao.org

An injured worker. Photo courtesy of gongchao.org

CM: How have workers responded to this treatment?

RR: In various ways. Foxconn has a big problem with a high turnover. Workers just leave the job, after some days, weeks, or months. They hate the work, the harsh machine rhythm, the daily exhaustion. Those who stay use various tactics to slow down the work process where possible, creating little breaks, time to take a breath, through acts of sabotage. And workers organize collective struggles, engage in strikes, roof occupations, and even riots, to show their discontent and demand improvements.

For instance, the workers in the iPhone-factory in Zhengzhou organized a strike against the increased work pressure after the customer complaints in the US, leading to the shutdown of production in some departments for one day.

CM: How would you compare the situation in China with that of Detroit.

RR: I have just spent a few days in Detroit, but it seems evident that comparing the new industrial zones in China, which have been rapidly expanding in the past years, with the deindustrialized zones and the decay of parts of Detroit, we are looking at the two ends of constant construction and destruction that capitalism offers.

There are deindustrialized zones similar to Detroit in China too, in the so-called rustbelt of China’s Northeast, where state companies were shut-down or restructured in the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading to millions of layoffs and a lot of misery among the former workers, but also triggering a massive resistance movement.

These rustbelt areas are different from the so-called sunbelt, the world-market factory zones in the East and Southeast, where the migrant workers work.

CM: You have said the perception of these workers in the Western media and the response of Western NGOs towards workers in China has been problematic. Why do you say this?

RR: I think, the rising economic and political importance of China globally makes it extremely important to address the social struggles there. We need to understand the dynamics of these conflicts and create links and communication lines between the social discontent in China and elsewhere.

So far, most of this is done through NGOs though, supported by unions and churches outside China, and their campaigns for solidarity are often based on paternalistic concepts. Workers in China and other countries in Asia and elsewhere are portrayed as “weak”, and they supposedly need “help” from so-called consumers in “rich” countries. The most extreme picture used by some NGOS is that of the “weak” Asian female worker, an image that repeats the sexist discourse on the docile oriental women used by capitalists.

These concepts are disastrous and deepen the gap between workers in different parts of the world. We need a discourse that emphasizes the struggles of proletarian subjects, their ability to fight against exploitation, repression, racist and sexist discrimination.

Only as resisting subjects can we relate on “the same eye-level”, can we connect our struggles and develop solidarity across borders and differences.

courtesy of gongchao.org

Workers stand in front of factory. Photo Courtesy of gongchao.org

CM: What did the Chinese workers you’ve spoken with think about life in the West?

RR: There is an immense lack of information about the social conditions in the West, and even the conception of the “West” is blurred because most Chinese include, for instance, all European countries in their conception of the “West”. When I talked to young Chinese about the wages in Eastern Europe, which in some countries there are similar to the Chinese wage level, they were shocked. They do not know about poverty, unemployment, the difficulties of organizing social protests, etc. in countries outside China. However, most workers in the US, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and elsewhere do not know much about the conditions in China, either.

CM: How are do these conditions compare with those in eastern Europe?

RR: Both China and Eastern Europe share the past experience of “real existing socialism.”  In the 1990s, both have seen a process of deindustrialization of the old, “socialist” enterprises, and at the same time, new industrialization and the build-up of world-market factories. Both in China and in Eastern Europe, this process was limited to certain regions, and large areas are still devastated, poor, with high levels of underemployment and outward migration.

However, China has seen much bigger changes economically, moving up the scale to a global player, while Eastern Europe has seen bigger political changes when the old regimes were chased out after 1989, being replaced with “western democracy and capitalism.” China’s Communist Party stayed in power, after crushing the Tian’anmen-uprising in 1989, and has upheld its authoritarian regime since.

For the social struggles, this created very different environments: economic crisis and underemployment have weakened the collective power of many workers in Eastern Europe, while economic boom and labor shortages have strengthened that of many workers in China. Chinese workers have no right to strike, no legal protection for their self-organized structures, but they have the power to resist and strike, winning over concessions like rising wages, while most Eastern European workers do have these legal rights, but they find it hard to organize collective protests and improve their situation.

CM: What would Chinese workers like others to know about their situation?

RR: That is hard to say. More and more workers in China are aware of the global importance of their jobs, the factories they work in, but also the growing importance of China as a whole. However, there are few direct connections between people in China and those abroad. Many workers in China know foreigners only as managers, so they rarely relate to people outside China as possible allies against capital, yet. It will need a great effort, more people learning Chinese, more translations, more connections, to change that situation.

For more information on Gongchao and the voices they represent, please visit gongchao.org.