At an individual and societal level, we can make something like work, for example, and its monetary and material rewards the only things that matter. It’s what we do as as sinners, as idolaters. In a fallen world, there will be places where a good thing like work becomes the only thing to the exclusion of something like, for example, the family.
In China, that’s actually going on. This week, TIME published an article about a series of suicides at Foxconn factory, the place that makes all of our iPods and other gadgetry.
Here are some excerpts from the article. Be sure to read the last paragraph.
The massive Foxconn factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen is known for assembling famous electronic goods like Apple’s iPhone and iPad. But in recent months it has gained a darker image, as a place where distraught workers regularly throw themselves to their deaths. The latest fatality came on Tuesday morning, when a 19-year-old employee died in a fall in the company’s Shenzhen compound, according to the state-run Xinhua news service. He was the ninth worker this year to have died in a fall from factory buildings on Foxconn’s properties in Shenzhen; two have survived suicide attempts, according to state-media reports. Another teenager, who the company revealed this month died after jumping from a company building in Hebei province in January, brings the total employee death toll from falls to 10 this year.
…Like Sun, the Foxconn workers who died this year have all been young, ranging in age from 18 to 24. The cases all differ, but there are common themes. “They feel a sense of pressure — pressure to make more money, pressure to work harder, pressure from family or difficulties in personal relationships,” says Geoffrey Crothall, an editor for the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong–based workers rights’ group. Experts say suicides can happen in clusters, with people in a group influenced by earlier incidents.
The dead have all been migrant workers, and for many Foxconn was their first job. The company pays most of its assembly-line workers in Shenzhen the city’s minimum wage of $130 a month, and many work significant overtime hours in order to maximize their incomes. “The work [at Foxconn] is long, monotonous and boring,” says Liu Kaiming, a labor researcher and executive director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation. “The speed is very fast and you can’t slow down, for 10 hours a day at the minimum. You can see how someone could easily become numb and turn into a machine.”
After hours, many workers live in on-site dormitories, where heavy staff turnover makes long-lasting personal connections impossible. That combination — long workdays and a minimal social safety net — leaves vulnerable young workers with few places to turn, says Liu. “Foxconn has 420,000 people; in the U.S. that would be a big city. Even in China that would be a big city, but it’s a city without any families. Everyone is working. They live in a dormitory for seven months and don’t know their own roommates’ names.”
Foxconn says it has provided social options like libraries and sports for its workers, and recently has prevented many more attempted suicides. But labor activists argue it needs to make more fundamental changes, like paying higher wages so that workers don’t feel forced to work so many overtime hours.
In mid-May the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekend ran a story by a young reporter who spent a month working undercover at the factory. Liu Zhiyi wrote that the workers all dreamed of wealth, but felt that they had few opportunities outside the company. The workplace wasn’t a sweatshop, Liu wrote, but the assembly-line work slowly dehumanized the employees. “It seems as if while they operate the machines, the machines also operate them,” the story said. “Parts flow by, and their youth is worn down to the rhythm of the machines.”
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