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Temporalités chinoises

Injury of Class: Compressed Modernity and the Struggle of Foxconn Workers

Une blessure de classe : modernité compressée et luttes ouvrières à Foxconn
Heridas de clase: la lucha de los trabajadores de Foxconn en la modernidad comprimida
Ngai Pun et Huipeng Zhang


L’exemple de Foxconn est une manifestation remarquable de la modernité compressée en Chine, retravaillant la temporalité et la spatialité de la production et de la consommation globales qui affecte massivement non seulement les sociétés humaines en général, mais aussi, plus spécifiquement, la nouvelle génération ouvrière chinoise. Ayant acquis un monopole sur le marché mondial, Foxconn se démarque comme le nouveau phénomène de concentration et de centralisation de capital, en raison de la rapidité et de l’échelle d’accumulation de son capital dans toutes les régions de Chine. Sans précédent historique, sans comparaison possible avec d’autres entreprises à travers le globe, Foxconn possède désormais un million d’employés et d’ouvriers dans son empire industriel en tant qu’unique fabricant pour Apple et d’autres marques. Cet article cherche à montrer comment des Chinois migrants, et plus précisément les ouvriers de Foxconn, ont été amenés à travailler dans la plus grande fabrique mondiale d’électronique, en étant soumis à des pressions multiples quant aux cadences et au rythme de travail, et comment leur lutte est susceptible d’un côté de les mener au suicide, tout en constituant d’un autre côté l’aiguillon d’une résistance quotidienne et collective. Les inévitables conflits et tragédies que cela génère, sur fond de modernité compressée, finit par conduire à une réflexion sur le développement humain.

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The Suicides

1At about 8 A.M. on 17 March 2010, a 17-year-old worker, Tian Yu, went to the window of her fourth story dorm room at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen and jumped. Tian Yu survived. Yet many more have followed Tian Yu’s attempt to end her life even as global consumers race to devour new generation electronic products as if there were no tomorrow. Within twelve months, 18 young rural migrant workers had attempted suicide at Foxconn facilities. They ranged in age between 17 and 25—the prime of youth. These worker suicides called for urgent reflection on compressed modernity, in which young workers in the Global South are increasingly incorporated in global production. Death is an extreme form of resistance against human suffering and class injury in the situation of compressed modernity. Compressed modernity is defined as “a civilizational condition in which economic, political, social and/or cultural changes occur in an extremely condensed manner in respect to both time and space, and in which the dynamic coexistence of mutually disparate historical and social elements leads to the construction and reconstruction of a highly complex and fluid social system”. (Chang, 2010) This article, taking a more critical approach, discloses the destruction of working lives in a global production system under extreme time-space condensation and compression due to the advent of digital capitalism. In line with David Harvey’s critique of modernity and global capitalism (2014), we echo the view that time-space compression at the global scale is an inherent reaction to multiple crises of neo-liberal capitalism in the process of capital accumulation.

2One of the current features of compressed modernity is the digital revolution which significantly changes the pace and space of human lives. “Utopia or dystopia—where will the “digital revolution” lead human society?” is a question that remains unanswered (Pun, Tse and Ng, forthcoming). Yet this is not an issue of modern experimentalism, as if society could turn into a studio, inviting individuals to act out their experimental performance. In this “digital revolution,” human imagination, social power, the nation-state, and transnational capital all contribute to the formation and deformation of our lives (Greenfield, 2017).

3Manuel Castells, in his trilogy of the Informational Age, is a pioneer in highlighting that digital revolution, in the age of the informational society, could contribute to opening the world across different social classes. Castells has claimed that our time is now the network society in which relationships of production, power, and experience are increasingly organized by different kinds of power—networking power, network power, networked power, and network-making power that shapes the domination and resistance of society (Castells, 2009, pp. 42-47).

4Castells refuted his previous thinking which drew largely on Karl Marx in his study of the urban question. He argues that a borderless network society signaled an epochal transformation of physical, social, and cultural spaces—needless to say, the transcendence of social classes. A current famous statement by Castells is: “Not everything or everyone is globalized, but the global networks that structure the planet affect everything and everyone” (2008, p. 81).

5In his new book, Networks of Outrage and Hope (2015), in which he studied various social movements around the globe after the financial crisis of 2008, Castells was excited to claim that during social movements, “there were first a few, who were joined by hundreds, then networked by thousands, then supported by millions with their voices and their internal quest for hope” that “cut across ideology and hype, to connect with the real concerns of real people in the real human experience that had been reclaimed” (2015, pp. 1-2).

6Lacking a serious, political economic analysis of the formation of network society and an analysis of class conflicts at the heart of the ICTs industry, though he did notice the asymmetry between different kinds of power, and despite his tremendous contribution to our understanding of social movements in the network society, Castells was indifferent to the control of the state and company power over cyberspace, to the arrests of civic protestors with the aid of informational technology, as well as to the class conflicts and social resistance at the forefront of the struggle of media as both medium and message.

7In contrast to Castells, Christian Fuchs and many others are more critical, arguing that information, technology, and media are actually embedded in the core of the capitalist relations of production, which help extend and reproduce capitalism into a stage of imperialism instead of generating a true “liberating effect” to challenge global capitalism. In this stance, Fuchs argues that “digital labor, as the newest frontier of capitalist innovation and exploitation, is central to the structures of contemporary imperialism,” and “information technology has become a means of war” (Fuchs, 2016, p. 14).

8Apple and Foxconn workers signaled the debate on compressed modernity and digital capitalism. Both Apple and Foxconn stand out as the new phenomenon of capital concentration and centralization because of its speed and scale of capital accumulation in all regions of China that is incomparable to other enterprises (Pun and Chan, 2012). This article targets young workers working inside the dormitory labor regime of Foxconn. As the world’s largest electronics factory, Foxconn ate up a huge number of small factories in the same sector not only in China, but also other parts of the world spreading its facilities and offices in more than thirty countries. Unprecedented in history and incomparable across the globe, Foxconn now has one million staff and workers in its industrial empire which is the sole manufacturer for Apple and other brands. Foxconn is a distinctive example of compressed modernity in China, which reworks the scale and speed of globalization in production, social reproduction and consumption that not only seriously affect human societies in general, but also specifically the new Chinese working class. Growing into monopoly capital for the world market, Foxconn workers were now induced to work in a global top 500 company, subjected to such work pressure that their desperation might lead to suicide on the one hand, but also open up daily and collective resistance on the other.

9The suicides of Foxconn workers since 2010 who produced iPhones and iPads alarmed the world. The suicide wave exposed the “invisible” laboring subjects in the world’s workshop at the forefront of the spectacular. As a Foxconn worker poet, Xu Lizhi, who ended his life on 30 September 2014, wrote:

  • 1 Friends of the Nao Project, 29 October 2014, “The Poetry and Brief Life of a Foxconn Worker: Xu Liz (...)

On My Deathbed
I want to take another look at the ocean,
Behold the vastness of tears from half a lifetime
I want to climb another mountain,
Try to call back the soul that I’ve lost
I want to touch the sky,
Feel that blueness so light
But unable to do any of these, I’m leaving this world.
Everyone who’s heard of me
Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving
Even less should you sigh or grieve
I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.
— Xu Lizhi, 30 September 2014 1

10Sparked by the spate of suicides and subsequent worker struggles, Chinese sociologists launched an experimental approach of cross-border action research involving researchers and students from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

11During the peak period of workers’ suicide, in June 2010 we began to collaborate with faculty and students from 20 universities in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to investigate Foxconn’s labor management and factory practices. Over these five years, the 20-university research group, mainly students and teachers from Pekin University, Tsinghua University, Taiwan National University, Taiwan Tsinghua University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and many others, conducted extensive field work in fourteen Foxconn production complexes of twelve cities in four regions of China. Through surveys and in-depth interviews, the research team has conducted two waves of investigations and collected more than 300 workers interviews. This is probably the first time that university students from Greater China have come together to conduct joint research, sharing con­cerns about the lives and struggles of China’s new working class, and work together to call for the reflection on the compressed mode of development that causes the hidden injury of class and the destruction of working lives.

Foxconn: The Electronic Workshop of the World

12Foxconn was founded in Taipei in 1974. The name “Fox-conn” alludes to the corporation’s ability to produce electronic connectors at nimble fox-like speed, signaling capital’s power in compressing time and space on a global scale. Foxconn is currently the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics, providing “6C” products—computers (laptops, desk-tops, tablet personal computers such as iPads), communications equipment (iPhones), consumer products (digital music players, cameras, game consoles, TVs), cars (automotive electronics), content (e-book readers such as Kindle), and healthcare products. In 1988, Foxconn set up its first offshore factory in Shenzhen, with a small workforce of 150 internal migrant workers from the countryside in Guangdong Province, of whom some 100 were women. As it demanded more human resources during the 1990s, Foxconn greatly benefited from the large supply of cheap, internal migrant labor. It required the specialization of labor and the diversification of production lines. It also employed an increasing number of skilled Chinese staff and workers in low to mid-level management. By the turn of the 21st century, Foxconn had consolidated its production clusters in two regions: the Pearl River Delta in the south and the Yangzi River Delta in the east, where local state governments in places such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Kunshan provided businesses with preferential tax policies, land and industrial infrastructure, and substantial labor supplies.

13The latest stage of Foxconn’s expansion is the building of monopoly capital by mergers and relocation of production facilities across all regions in China. Since the early 2000s, Foxconn tapped into the lower-cost labor and infrastructural resources in northern, central, and western regions. Foxconn integrates production chains from raw material extraction to final assembly lines to reduce market uncertainties and enhance cost and time effectiveness. Through mergers and acquisitions as well as strategic partnerships, Foxconn is able to shorten its downstream supply chain by manufacturing some parts in-house. Subject to the iron laws of capitalist production that force the individual capitalist to compete with others in the market, Foxconn has intensified its race for new business and production. In this way the influx of rush orders has pushed Foxconn production workers to their physical and psychological limits, leading to workers’ suicides as well as individual and collective resistance at the workplace.

Chinese State and Local Accumulation

14Foxconn’s achievement as a big-name electronics contract manufacturer is an important factor, allowing for China’s emergence as the workshop of the world and the second largest economy in the world. As monopoly capital further expands, the concentration of capital vertically led to spatial expansion of production horizontally. Foxconn facilities in the coastal areas have been shifting inland, driven by rising production costs and inflation, the shortage of labor in coastal China, and the government’s strategy to open up its interior. The State Council has approved plans for the Cheng-Yu Economic Zone (Cheng-Yu Jingji Qu, that is, Chengdu and Chongqing), a regional project to link up the economic development between the two cities of Chengdu and Chongqing, in order to boost the economy of western China further. With the encouragement of the central government, local government leaders promote the export-oriented growth model by creating a business-friendly environment on the one hand, and reverse the historical trend of labor out-migration by improving local employment on the other. Meanwhile, young workers and married migrants have increasingly taken the job opportunities in their native locations instead of moving to distant provinces.

  • 2 See Total Population by Urban and Rural Residence and Birth Rate, Death Rate, Natural Growth Rate b (...)

15Government statistics for 2013 showed that while eastern China is still the primary preference for out-going rural migrant workers because of its relatively higher wages, eastern, central, and western China have narrowed the gap: more than 49.36 million migrants worked in the Eastern region, around 64.24 million in the central region, and nearly 52.50 million in the Western region.2 While Foxconn Chongqing and Foxconn Chengdu were able to recruit laborers from their respective territories, most of the “local workers” were rural migrants from the countryside who had to commute for at least a few hours to their workplaces and were not able to go home on their day off on weekends. In short, Foxconn, like other leading investors, is moving energetically to take advantage of lower wages and local government incentives to build new production facilities in central and Western regions.

16Perhaps a more significant finding is the “dispatch” of students from vocational schools to work in surveyed Foxconn factories through the mediation of education officers of respective local governments in Wuhan, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Kunshan, Langfang, and Taiyuan (Pun and Koo, 2014). Student interviewees have reported that education departments and government officers-in-charge have “requested” their schools to arrange internships at Foxconn factories.

17Hence we found that student workers at Foxconn with internships organized by their schools have turned into an enormous worker community in Foxconn factories across the country. The majority of student interns we encountered were in their second or third year of study, and most were 16 to 18 years of age. Despite the maximum eight-hour work day stipulated by Education Ministry regulations, the intern workers at Foxconn frequently did excessive overtime work during the day or night shift. Many students complained:

I feel that what I’ve learned in my major is of no use; I’ve used nothing here.

We don’t learn any technical skills at Foxconn, every day is just a repetition of one or two simple motions, like a robot.

18Foxconn’s “student internships” are actually a way of implementing “student labor,” to help raise output and increase profits by paying sub-minimum wages during the busy season. The labor cost is further reduced as student interns, unlike their fellow migrant workers, are not entitled to government-run social insurance schemes (as they are not protected under the labor laws and regulations). In all these ways, Foxconn’s labor regime—characterized by tight control of workers and superexploitation of students—contributes to its rapid capital accumulation.

19In short, the dominance and monopoly of Foxconn is achieved through the dismantling of the socialist economy by the reform and open-door policy in general and a deepening engagement between local states and monopoly capital in particular over recent years. Local states compete fiercely to host a Foxconn production base to enhance economic growth, offering lucrative resources to the technology giant. A huge network of electronics manufacturing coordinated by Foxconn is thus fast expanding across geographic spaces on Mainland China. Inside the Foxconn “Empire,” management organizes labor through a highly centralized and hierarchical production system, in which the workforce is subjected to a panoptic discipline, resulting in workers’ suicides and resistance.

Migrant Workers in the Foxconn “Empire”

20We are extremely interested in understanding the hidden abode of production of a monopoly capital and how Foxconn manages to “rule” over its million-strong workforce. A Foxconn “Empire”—as the workers often call it—is a distinctive dormitory factory regime which organizes spheres of production and reproduction. Foxconn’s biggest manufacturing campus, Shenzhen Longhua, once with a workforce of more than 400,000 in 2010 and 2011 has currently dropped to less than 200,000 workers due to factory relocation and expansion in inland China. This 2.3-square-kilometer campus includes: factories, warehouses, 12-story dormitories, a psychological counselling clinic, an employee care center, banks, two hospitals, a library, a post office, a fire brigade with two fire engines, an exclusive television network, an educational institute, bookstores, soccer fields, basketball courts, track and field, swimming pools, cyber theaters, supermarkets, a collection of cafeterias and restaurants, and even a wedding dress shop. This main campus is divided into 10 zones, equipped with first-class production facilities and the “best” living environment, as it is the model factory for customers, central- and local-level governments, and visitors from media organizations and other inspection units.

21Foxconn competes on “speed, quality, engineering service, efficiency, and added value” to maximize profits. Its 12-level management hierarchy with clear lines of command is organized in a pyramid; in the chain of command in the workshop alone, frontline workers face multiple layers of management from assistant line leaders to line leaders, team leaders, and supervisors. There is a broad, three-tiered incentive scheme at Foxconn: at the upper stratum are decision-making leaders who are rewarded by company share dividends and job tenure for their loyalty, commitment, and seniority; at the middle level are managing and supervisory staff who are rewarded by housing and monetary benefits; and on the lower rung are ordinary workers whose wages and welfare are barely minimal.

22The labor process in Foxconn is organized by a hierarchical management principle. Division of labor is so detailed that workers see themselves as merely “a cog in the machine.” Senior managers formulate strategic plans and rules and standards and the lower-level staffers have to execute them at the lowest cost to achieve the greatest efficiency. Foxconn production operators in general do not require “skill” or thought; only strict implementation of instructions from management and mechanical repetition of each simple movement is required.

23“Low tech, high tech, making money is tech,” says Terry Gou, the CEO and founder of Foxconn, a saying taken from “Gou’s Quotations,” a document that company managers are expected to read and memorize. This pragmatic approach is strikingly similar to that of reformist leader Deng Xiaoping: “White cat, black cat, if it catches mice it is a good cat.” “Gou’s Quotations” evoke collective memories of the older generation who came of age during the collective era and recited “Mao’s Quotations” in political campaigns and in schools. In the Taiwanese-invested firm, when Foxconn staff test for promotion, some of the test questions are to write “Gou’s Quotations” from memory. Several famous examples are:

A harsh environment is a good thing.

Suffering is the identical twin of growth.

Outside the lab, there is no high-tech, only execution of discipline.

24“No admittance except on business”—every Foxconn factory building and dormitory has security checkpoints with guards standing by 24 hours a day. In order to enter the shop floor, workers must pass through layers of electronic gates and inspection systems. Workers repeatedly expressed the feeling that the entry access system made them feel as if working at Foxconn is to totally lose freedom:

We are not allowed to bring cell phones or any metallic objects into the workshop. They are confiscated. If there is a metal button on your clothes or necklace, it must be removed, otherwise you won’t be allowed in, or they [security officers] will simply cut the metal button off.

25While getting ready to start work on the production line, management will ask the workers: “How are you?” Workers must respond by shouting in unison, “Good! Very good! Very, very good!” This militaristic drilling is said to train workers as disciplined laborers. Production quotas and quality standards are passed down through channels to the frontline workers on the lowest level of the pyramid.

26Workers recalled how they were punished when they talked on the line, failed to catch up with the high speed of work, and made mistakes in work procedures. Several women workers attaching speakers to MP3-format digital audio players said:

After work, all of us—more than 100 persons—are made to stay behind. This happens whenever a worker is punished. A girl is forced to stand to attention to read aloud a statement of self-criticism. She must be loud enough to be heard. Oftentimes girls feel they are losing face. It’s very embarrassing. Her tears drop. Her voice becomes very small… Then the line leader shouted: “If one worker loses only one minute [failing to keep up with the pace of the work], then, how much more time will be wasted by 100 people?”

27Line leaders, who are also under pressure, treat workers harshly to reach productivity targets. The bottom line for management is daily output, not workers’ feelings. Workers, in return, made fun of their line leaders in their daily life by mocking Foxconn’s “humane management” as “human subordination”. A male worker sharply commented:

If someone makes a mistake at Foxconn, the person below them must take responsibility. If something bad happens I get screwed, one level screws another… higher level people vent their anger at those below them, but who can workers vent to? That’s why frontline workers jumped from those buildings.

28Factory-floor managers and supervisors often give lectures to production workers at the beginning and the end of the work day. After working a long shift of a standard 12 hours (in which four hours are overtime), workers still have to stand often for 15 minutes to half an hour and listen to speeches, although the content of such meetings remains the same: the management evaluates the production target of the previous shift, reminds workers of the tasks they need to pay special attention to, and work rules and regulations. Workers know too well that branded electronic products are expensive and there is no margin for mistakes.

29“Heart to heart, Foxconn and I grow together,” reads a bright red banner hanging at the new factory in Foxconn Chengdu. It ironically suggests the identification of workers and the company with one big heart. The corporate propaganda team has created a dream of riches through labor and tried to persuade workers that success and growth is only possible by working diligently.

30As of September 2016, the basic monthly wage (for a 40-hour normal work week) for assembly-line workers was about US$380 in Foxconn Shenzhen, with all the other nine surveyed Foxconn factories falling around this figure, depending on geographical location. All the workers and student interns interviewed had “agreed” to do overtime to earn more money, totaling US$480-500 amonth.

31Fushikang, The People of Foxconn,” literally translated, means “wealthy” and “healthy” people, which carries a gloomy irony for many “Foxconn People” we talked to. The Foxconn workers often took this phrase as a joke when they received their monthly wage. Regarding his present meager wages, one 25-year-old worker—of marriageable age—expressed anxiety about his future life, and especially about having a family:

I’m no longer able to muddle along at my job in Shenzhen, every month I make only over a few thousand yuan, and if I don’t marry I could get by for a few years, but if I marry, I will have to raise kids, it’s really not enough for that… Our days are truly hectic, and even if you are strong it is difficult. Most people in my dorm are unmarried, and I feel that married people generally won’t come here, the wages are low.

Production Intensity and Work Pressure

32Workers reported that, after the basic wage increase to 1,200 yuan in June 2010 due to the series of workers’ suicides, a clear increase in production was scheduled and production intensity increased. A group of young workers at the Shenzhen Guanlan factory responsible for processing cell phone casing said:

The production output was set at 5,120 pieces per day in the past but it had been raised by 20 percent to 6,400 pieces per day in recent months. We were completely exhausted.

  • 3 “A look inside Foxconn—where iPhones are made: a postmodern Chinese industrial empire that was blig (...)

33The largest Longhua factory could produce as many as 137,000 iPhones in a 24-hour day, or more than 90 a minute, as of September 2010.3 Management used stop-watches and computerized industrial engineering devices to test the capacity of the workers and if the workers being tested were able to reach the quota, the target would be increased day by day until the capacity of the workers was maximized. Another group of workers at Kunshan factory commented, “We cannot stop work for a minute. We are even faster than machines.” A young woman worker added:

Wearing gloves would eat into efficiency, we have a huge workload every day and wearing gloves would influence efficiency. During really busy times, I don’t even have time to go to the bathroom or eat.

34Foxconn claimed that production workers who stand during work are given a ten-minute break every two hours, but many workers said that “there is no recess at all,” especially when the shipment is tight. In some departments where workers nominally can take a break, they are not allowed to rest if they fail to meet the hourly production target. According to the workers interviewed, working overtime through the night in the electroplating, stamp-pressing, metal processing, paint-spraying, polishing, and surface-finishing units is the toughest.

35Buyers of Foxconn products—the world’s marquee corporations, including Apple, HP, Intel, Nokia, etc.—want their computers and iPhones fast to meet global demand. The corporations pressure Foxconn to compete against each other on price, quality, and delivery. To fulfill the requirement of speedy production and shipment deadlines, Foxconn transfers the work pressure to frontline workers. For example, Apple tried to get its iPhone 6 model out to the market without delay, while keeping up with the availability of iPhone 5 models. This drive for productivity and quality leads to constant pressure on Foxconn workers. The electronics parts and components are assembled quickly as they move up the 24-hour non-stop conveyor belts. Posters on the Foxconn workshop walls and between staircases read:

Value efficiency every minute, every second.

Achieve goals unless the sun no longer rises.

The devil is in the details.

36On an assembly line in the Shenzhen Longhua plant, a worker described her work in precise detail:

I take a motherboard from the line, scan the logo, put it in an anti-static electricity bag, stick a label, and place it on the line. Each of these tasks takes two seconds. In every ten seconds I finish five tasks.

37Each frontline worker specializes in one specific task and performs monotonous, repetitive motions at high speed. The rotating day and night shift system and extreme work intensity take away any feeling of freshness, accomplishment, or initiative. In the production process, workers occupy the lowest position, even below the lifeless machinery. “Workers come second to and are worn out by the machines,” was one worker’s insightful summary of the worker-machine relationship. Others shared a sense of low self-esteem: “I am just a speck of dust in the workshop.” This is the sense of self that arises after countless lectures from section leaders and production line leaders.

38Losing control over the labor process, workers’ awareness of their positions was painful: “Fate is not in your own hands but in your superior’s.” Those workers who could not endure the work pressure and isolation quit within a few months. In the survey conducted outside of Foxconn’s Hangzhou factory, a woman worker who had just quit said, “It is such a cold environment on the shopfloor. It makes me feel depressed. If I continue to work at Foxconn, I may commit suicide too.”

Loneliness and Fragmented Lives

39Foxconn provides workers with “conveniences” such as collective dormitories, canteens, services, and entertainment facilities in order to incorporate the entire living space under factory management, serving the just-in-time global production strategy. To a large extent, workers’ living space is merely an extension of the workshop, from the sphere of production to the sphere of daily reproduction. Food and drink, sleep, washing, and other aspects of workers’ daily lives are scheduled just like the production lines, with the goal not to satisfy workers’ needs as people but rather to reproduce workers’ physical strength at the lowest cost and in the shortest time in order to satisfy the factory’s production requirements. The feeling of alienation is multiplied when the production lines extend from workshop to dormitory space. There is no true rest even after getting off work at Foxconn. Workers with different jobs and even night-shift and day-shift workers are put up in the same dormitory. As a result, workers frequently disrupt each other’s rest because of different working hours. In addition, random dormitory assignments often break up existing networks of social relations, hindering communication and interaction between workers. In this lonely space, workers often felt as if they were losing control over their personal and social lives.

40All the Foxconn production sites featured a combination of factories and dormitories, and its Shenzhen facilities possess an astonishing 33 company dormitories and another 120 rented dormitories in the nearby community. The Foxconn Group has now tried to shift production workers from its higher-cost, overcrowded Shenzhen site to other facilities. The dormitory labor regime remains unchanged. Most migrant workers live in the dormitories, but they do not have a normal life in their “home”—they are living with strangers, not allowed to cook, and not permitted to receive friends or families overnight. Whether the worker is single or married, he or she is assigned a bunk space for one person. The private space is virtually reduced to one’s own bed behind a self-made curtain.

41From the perspective of labor control, these factory-provided dorms mean that production and labor reproduction activities take place in a self-contained, all-encompassing geographical locality. It facilitates flexible production by imposing overtime work, as the distinction between “home” and “work” is blurred. The lengthening of a work-day to 24 hours to meet the global production schedule means that the appropriation of labor surplus is absolute. Such a socio-spatial arrangement strengthens managerial domination, wherein control over labor is extended from the factory shop floor to the sphere of everyday life. The dormitory labor system is a cost-efficient solution for companies such as Foxconn to ensure that workers spend their off-hours just preparing for another round of production. Thus, workers face a double pressure within and outside the factory, to the extent that workers are stripped of any social living spaces.

42Company policy clearly isolates workers, making it difficult to organize collective actions. Local and friendship networks are weakened or cut off. A worker acutely observed:

Our batch of new hires totaled 120 persons. Most of us came from schools in Hubei; mine has 20 people. The company divided us into five different groups for training. After training, I was assigned to an assembly line. My new friends, whom I met during the training, were all placed in different positions… I consider this an arrangement to prevent workers from “making trouble.”

43As a result, interpersonal relations between workers are very weak, despite the fact that most are in their late teens or early twenties. Now we begin to understand why some workers have taken their lives.

44Tian Yu is a 17-year-old survivor. On March 17, 2010, this carefree girl who once loved laughing and flowers jumped off the fourth floor of the Shenzhen Longhua factory worker dormitory. Compared with over a dozen other young lives that passed away, she was lucky; she lived. Yet in some ways she is less fortunate, because her young body remains paralyzed after many operations, and she will spend the rest of her life in a hospital bed or wheelchair.

45Inside the “forbidden Foxconn city,” Tian Yu experienced a similar kind of existence to all other production workers: go to work, return exhausted from overtime, go to sleep, have no free time to themselves, and no “extra” time for anything else. A typical work day begins at 8 A.M. and finishes at 8 P.M. On the product-parts inspection line, she was often reprimanded by her line leaders for poor quality, rejected parts, and “not working fast enough.” Her seven roommates in the dormitory were all from other business groups; there was no one with whom to share the hardships at work. In her only 30 or so working days, she could not overcome the deep state of helplessness, but chose to end her life. She calmly recalled in the ward:

I entered Foxconn on February 8, 2010 and asked to go straight to work the next morning. In the enormous factory, I lost my way. Finally I arrived on the line—late for my first day of work… At the time I should receive my first month’s wage, I didn’t get my wage-card. I asked my line leader what went wrong. She simply told me to inquire in the Guanlan plant [an hour away by bus]. There, I asked one after another and still couldn’t find a clue. I was like a ball being kicked around. No one tried to help.

46Anger and frustration pent up. Instead of going to work early the next morning, Tian took desperate action.

47In the wake of the multiple suicides, Foxconn dormitories throughout the country were all wire-grilled. The company installed 3,000,000 square-meters of safety nets which were hung around outdoor stairways of dormitory buildings to prevent employees from jumping. Workers now live in a literal as well as metaphorical cage.

Workers’ Resistance

48Despite the attempt to take panoptic control over the workers on the production line, we found that the workers, in agony, would resist management in a variety of ways including daily and collective resistance: stealing products, slow-downs, stoppages, small-scale strikes, and sometimes even sabotage, which put back production badly. During our research, Foxconn workers informed us from time to time that if they could not endure their management on the line, they would take concerted action and work as slowly as possible in order to embarrass their line leaders. Once the workers won a small victory by having their line leader changed because this line leader was too harsh; in another instance, everybody stopped working on the line when the production order was too much of a rush, gaining managerial concessions. In short, there are inevitable tensions and resistances built into the repressive regime of Foxconn, despite its hype of harmony and “mutual love and care.”

49Foxconn workers were often remembered because of the suicidal wave of 2010, but their resistance and collective action were seldom recorded and studied. Yet, during our research on Foxconn workers in the past five years, stoppages, sit-ins, demonstrations and even riots in different Foxconn facilities occurred frequently.

A Letter to Foxconn CEO, Terry Gou

50Following a riot that broke out on September 24, 2012, Yu Zhonghong, a 21-year-old high school graduate with two years of work at Foxconn Taiyuan, wrote an open letter to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, the first such letter in Foxconn’s history:

If you don’t wish to be again loudly woken at night from deep sleep,
if you don’t wish to constantly rush about by airplane again,
if you don’t wish to be investigated again by the American Fair Labor Association,
if you don’t wish your company to again be called by people a sweatshop
Please use the last bit of a humanitarian eye to observe us.
Please give us the last bit of human self-esteem.
Don’t allow your hired ruffians to hunt for our bodies and belongings,
don’t allow your hired ruffians to harass female workers,
don’t let your lackeys take every worker for the enemy,
don’t, because of one little error, arbitrarily berate or, worse, beat workers.
Please be clear, the true cause of imminent destruction of your industrial empire
cannot be one or two errors in the manufacturing process,
cannot be one or two workers’ suicide,
cannot be the theft of one or two computer mice or other official items.
Please be clear, the true cause of the imminent destruction of your industrial empire
is this strict hierarchical system,
it is this thing called privilege.

51Beginning late at night on Sunday 23 September 2012, and continuing through the morning of September 24, tens of thousands of workers rioted at the 80,000-worker Foxconn Taiyuan factory in Shanxi province, causing the shutdown of entire production lines for that day and disrupting the manufacturing of iPhone 5 metal parts. Several dozen workers were brutally beaten and seriously injured by company security officers when they came to support a group fighting at the workers’ dormitory area, and 5,000 armed police were dispatched to the scene. Shanxi provincial governor Wang Jun also rushed to the plant to “restore law and order.” This industrial action is worth noting not only because of the scale of protest, but also because the workers’ leaders were able to voice their condemnation of the whole production system of the industrial empire and overtly make their demands. Yu Zhonghong and his co-workers courageously demanded of both the company and its union that they act responsibly toward the workers. The open letter to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou ends with three “remembers”:

Please remember, from now on, to treat your subordinates as humans, and require them to treat their subordinates, and their subordinates, and their subordinates, as humans.
Please remember, from now on, to change your attitude that Taiwanese are superior, those of you who are riding a rocket of fast promotions and earning wages as high as heaven compared to those on earth.
Please remember, from now on, to reassign the responsibilities of the company union so that genuine trade unions can play their role.

52Yu Zhonghong, a member of the post-1990 generation growing up in the era of massive rural to urban labor migration, reflects on the shared experiences with his peers, the two hundred million rural migrant workers who have become the core of the new Chinese working class, yet find themselves acutely confronted with the class conflict of the dormitory labor regime. Many in this new cohort of migrant workers—second and even third generation youth who grew up living and working in the cities—are experiencing grievances and anger: “always yelled at,” “self-respect trampled mercilessly,” holding low wage jobs, and at best, with slight chances to advance via education or training. If suicide is understood as an extreme form of labor protest chosen by some to expose an oppressive factory discipline in the industrial world, workers like Zhonghong and his co-workers are now standing up to defend their dignity and rights through direct class action. This is particularly telling at a time when China has begun its transition from a nation with a large labor surplus and a relatively youthful population, to one with tight labor markets and an aging population, a situation that is driving wages up and prompting corporations to transfer operations to lower wage areas in China’s interior. Foxconn is no exception.

53Moreover, we have observed a quick learning process among young migrants regarding organizing strategies, with the innovative and courageous actions of one group of workers leading another group to take similar actions, often within months in the same industrial area. In the factory-cum-dormitory setting, labor awareness among the youngest or newest groups of workers was raised. If the language of strikes and their participation is brand new to some workers, it is not new to others. High mobility of labor has facilitated the sharing of experiences of collective protests and strikes among workers. This is the bedrock for nurturing class consciousness among the new generation of migrant working class.

54However, the structural weakness of workers vis-à-vis management is also clear: the Chinese state has severely restricted collective labor rights, namely the right to organize and to strike, while local governments eagerly bid to secure production that will guarantee jobs. Nevertheless, in both the workplace and in the marketplace, migrant workers do possess structural and bargaining power. To date, this has been exercised primarily through wildcat strikes and riots, bypassing the official unions that serve the interests of management and the local state. With workers sensitive to opportunities presented by the demand by brands, such as Apple and other giants, to meet quotas for new models, they have repeatedly come together at the dormitory, workshop, or factory level to voice demands in timely ways. They are also quick to leverage the imminent labor shortage to boost wages, and have even scored a number of victories.

55Although the development of an organized class movement is being restricted, factory-level strikes, work stoppages, collective bargaining for wages and social security, launching collective complaints, or actions such as resorting to media exposure or the state apparatus are common means used by migrant workers to express their dissatisfactions and to ask for changes. The collective actions involved in this rapidly changing society induce angry, largely violent actions, sometimes a mixture of legal and illegal actions among migrant workers. In China’s new industrial zones the language of class is subsumed and collective actions still lack a formal political agenda working against the capital-state nexus, but this does not mean that “interest-based” or “class-oriented” collective actions cannot germinate into political actions in this rapidly shifting society in the long run. Despite the structural barriers, the new working class conjures up an array of everyday and collective forms of insurgency, which threatens the forces of capital, and makes the state ever more anxious to subdue them. Class conflict serves to reinforce collective identity, and vice-versa. Through collective actions, the migrant workers were no longer atomized workers of a single workshop or production team. They develop a shared identity and consciousness from their daily experiences when taking part in action.


56As a specific form of compressed modernity, we may say that Foxconn represents a new development of monopoly capital, generating time-space condensation in the global factory regime that dominates the lives of the new generation of Chinese migrant workers and creates new forms of hardship and suffering to such an extent that these challenges could not have been overcome by the previous generation of migrant workers. The market dominance of the million-strong Foxconn corporation is facilitated through a deepening process of China’s economic transformation at the national level as well as an ever-tighter alliance between business and local states. The astonishing speed of capital expansion across geographic spaces was achieved through an alliance with the Chinese state, especially at the local level. In particular, local states compete to incite Foxconn to set up new factory compounds in their territories so as to boost GDP growth under their jurisdiction, to the extent that they ignore labor law enforcement and hence labor protection. Foxconn’s growth was facilitated by the Chinese state in terms of providing massive land, infrastructural support, and supply of labor, resulting in a distinctive management model and a global factory regime, leading to worker grievances and feelings of desperation.

57We are highlighting a dark side of compressed modernity: Foxconn as a form of monopoly capital generates a global “race to the bottom” production strategy and repressive mode of management that weighs heavily on the rural migrant workers who make up its workforce, depriving them of their hopes, their dreams, and their future. Within the walled cities of Foxconn, workers are struggling to improve their lives in the face of a factory discipline requiring that they meet ever-higher productivity demands. When the Chinese government does not enforce labor law, employers such as Foxconn feel free to ignore state restrictions on overtime to flexibly meet global just-in-time manufacturing and logistical imperatives. On the factory floor, the stress associated with the “scientific” mode of production and inhumane management is intense. Alienation of labor and the lack of social support are common experiences. Young migrant workers in their late teens to mid-twenties, who have been placed in the “first-class”, Foxconn factory-cum-dormitory environment, experience severe loneliness, anxiety, and alienation. Suicide is merely the most extreme manifestation of the migrant work experience for hundreds of millions. Contradictions between capital and labor ultimately have cumulated at the point of production and daily reproduction, resulting in widespread labor grievances as well as struggles.

58As highlighted by the ideas of compressed modernity and beyond, the issues of temporality expressed in terms of duration, rhythm and intensity are of fundamental importance to understand the dominance of capital and its colonization of human lives. Firstly, the Foxconn case shows that by overlapping production and daily social reproduction via a dormitory labor regime, it exposes intensive control and condensation of work and social times. Secondly, the extensive duration of working time including overtime leads to a negative impact on the physical and mental health of the working class. Thirdly, the rhythm of work characterized by speed, intensity, shifts, repetition and monotony, also induces emotional ups-and-downs of the young workers, affecting their sense of well-being. Last but not least, the timing of conflict and rupture also contributes significantly to collective actions such as complaints, stoppages and strikes.

59At a time when the labor movement, in an era of neoliberalism, economic crisis, and “austerity,” is on the defensive worldwide, an increasing number of spontaneous protests and direct actions by workers have taken place in China. These struggles foretell a gradual formation of a new Chinese working class in the age of global capitalism. In transnational production, heightened class conflicts are fueling labor insurgency in the country. If the new generation of migrant workers succeeds in building their unions and autonomous worker organizations such as labor NGOs, their struggles will shape the future of labor and democracy not only in China but throughout the world.

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1 Friends of the Nao Project, 29 October 2014, “The Poetry and Brief Life of a Foxconn Worker: Xu Lizhi (1990-2014).” See

2 See Total Population by Urban and Rural Residence and Birth Rate, Death Rate, Natural Growth Rate by Region, China Statistical Yearbook 2014,

3 “A look inside Foxconn—where iPhones are made: a postmodern Chinese industrial empire that was blighted by suicides,” Bloomberg Businessweek, December 9, 2010.

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Ngai Pun et Huipeng Zhang, « Injury of Class: Compressed Modernity and the Struggle of Foxconn Workers »Temporalités [En ligne], 26 | 2017, mis en ligne le 13 février 2018, consulté le 23 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ngai Pun

Professor at Department of Sociology, University of Hong Kong (HKU)

Huipeng Zhang

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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