Chinese Workers Threaten Mass Suicide

In a land where strikes are illegal, factory laborers have few ways to negotiate. Meanwhile, the country’s rich line up for the very devices made for slave wages.

01.13.12 9:45 AM ET

All they wanted was an upgrade.

Earlier this month more than 150 Chinese men and women gathered in the cold and waited for two days, dreaming of new gadgets and how their lives could improve because of them. But they didn’t want to buy the electronics, they wanted to be paid more for making them. If not, they would kill themselves.

The mass standoff at a plant in Wuhan, China, run by Foxconn Technology, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer (it makes gadgets like iPhones, laptops, and the Xbox 360), saw dozens of workers ascend to the roof of a factory building and threaten to jump off after company bosses broke a promise to pay the workers a severance fee. The protest came a week before another major electronics event here: Apple’s launch of the iPhone 4S this Friday. Already hundreds of thousands of Chinese are preparing to hand over hundreds of dollars’ worth of yuan for the latest Apple status symbol. According to a report by the state-run Xinhua news agency, 1,000 scalpers descended on the Beijing Apple store last weekend to buy up the next shipment of the scarce phone; some promised to return this Friday to nab all the iPhone 4S models they could get their hands on.

“You’ll have no hope of getting an iPhone 4 or 4S from the store, but only from us,” one scalper bragged.

The desperation, of both wealthy Chinese to obtain the sleek new device and of unskilled laborers to obtain higher wages, throws into sharp relief the power of consumerism to drive China’s economic growth—and the country’s widening income gap.

The factory workers grew outraged after Foxconn management refused to pay promised compensation to those who chose to quit rather than transfer from a close line making Xbox 360 consoles. The broken promise was the last straw for some workers already angry over unsafe manufacturing practices and low pay.

In 2010 workers at Foxconn held a series of protests that led to 18 laborers jumping from building roofs, with 14 resulting in death. Following those suicides, the company raised minimum wages from an average of $220 to $295 a month. Yet the grueling work and company’s militarylike culture are still too much for many workers; a recent report claimed that some 24,000 people quit the company’s flagship factory every month, according to The Telegraph.

The recent standoff ended after Wuhan government officials convinced the protesters to come down and return to work, though it’s unclear whether they received compensation. Some 45 workers walked off the job.

Foxconn meanwhile is frantically trying to manage the negative publicity. “The welfare of our employees is our top priority and we are committed to ensuring that all employees are treated fairly,” a spokesman told The Telegraph.

While the protest may be over, the plight of China’s workers continues to be a major issue, even as the country is now the world’s second-largest market for luxury goods. The elite automaker Rolls-Royce announced recently that it has sold more cars in 2011 than any year in its 107-year history thanks to China, while Apple saw sales in China, its second-largest market behind the U.S., jump to $13 billion in the first nine months of 2011, up from $3 billion a year earlier.

In a nation where peasants selling fruit must make way for elite officials and tycoons riding in the back of luxury cars, many are keenly aware that the communist country is far from being a worker’s paradise. “China has enjoyed fast economic development in past years, but the treasure has been taken by the government and the business owners, not by ordinary people,” said Hu Guangdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. But don’t expect the masses to “occupy” against the top 1 percent any time soon. Laborers threaten suicide because they usually have no other way of making demands, since going on strike is illegal. “In China workers don’t have the right to speak, the right to take part in decision making, or the right to demonstrate,” Professor Hu said.

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For now, the only public gatherings allowed are those where participants are going shopping, and Apple’s iPhone 4S launch promises to be quite rowdy. With demand soaring and quantities limited, hundreds of would-be customers lined up outside each of the company’s five China stores on Thursday night for the phone, which costs $790 unlocked. That’s three months’ wages for Foxconn assembly workers.

Apple is using a ticketing system to prevent customers from cutting in line, but scalpers are still trying to game the system by hacking the company’s reservation page, claimed one man who called himself an “unofficial salesman” for the company. On Thursday night, the scalpers—who came in well-organized teams of 30–50 people—were so numerous that the Beijing Apple Store announced it would not sell the new phone, prompting scalpers to attack security guards, pelt the store with eggs, and threaten the police. Eventually SWAT teams were called in to disperse the crowd.

With bragging rights at a premium, Chinese wealthy enough to buy the new phone will probably sooner lose sleep waiting in line than lament the hardships faced by their poorer comrades who manufacture the iPhone 4S. “It's one of those ‘I’m-richer-than-you’ kind of toys,” said Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based technology analyst. “And that’s important to a lot of people here.”