Author: Jenny Chan, SACOM Advisor


Since the beginning of 2010, a startling ten Foxconn employees in Shenzhen tried to end their lives. Eight died, while two survived their injuries. All were between 18 and 25 years old—in the prime of their youth—and their loss should awaken wider society to reflect upon the costs of a development model that sacrifices dignity for economic growth.

On 18 May 2010, nine mainland Chinese and Hong Kong academics issued an open statement calling on Foxconn and the government to do justice for the younger generation of migrant workers. The statement painfully reads:

From the moment they [the new generation of migrant workers] step beyond the doors of their houses, they never think of going back to farming like their parents. In this sense, they see no other options when they enter the city to work. The moment they see there is little possibility of building a home in the city through hard work, the very meaning of their work collapses. The path ahead is blocked, and the road to retreat is closed. Trapped in this situation, the new generation of migrant workers faces serious identity crisis and, in effect, this magnifies psychological and emotional problems. Digging into this deeper level of our societal and structural conditions, we come closer to understanding the ‘no way back’ mentality of these Foxconn employees.

China’s development strategy throughout these 30 years not only accomplished an economic miracle. It deepened regional inequalities, prolonged stagnation of wages, and deprived migrant workers’ citizenship and human rights. In the following, we first outline the pattern of internal labor migration under the widening gaps between rural and urban economies. Second, we review the recent cases of Foxconn suicides to probe into the working lives of those who struggle to live on. Finally, we appeal to the concerned public to nurture a sustainable community that respects workers’ rights.

Chinese migrants as low-paid workers and secondary citizens

More than 10 percent of the 1.4 billion people in China, that is, hundreds of millions of “peasants” from the countryside, are on the move. These internal migrants are hailed as China’s new working class. They are preferred as a low cost source of labor and considered better fit for training and adaption to the competitive pressures of the market. In contrast to older state-owned-enterprise workers who seem hopelessly stuck in their socialist mentality and welfare dependency, new generations of peasants-turned-workers are said to be building China’s modernization.

In comparison with global-oriented export processing zones, the vast Chinese countryside is viewed as a wasteland of backwardness. The decollectivization of agricultural production differentiated the rural economy and spurred rising income differences between households. Young people long for a life attuned to the times, and the city is where everything happens. Aspirations for a better future have motivated many from the countryside to seek new opportunities in the cities. The resulting rural-to-urban migration left villages associated with stagnation.

Under the direction of the Chinese authoritarian state, China’s export-oriented economic model proved it could deliver economic growth. Asian-invested enterprises and domestic manufacturers on mainland China have risen quickly to become contractors and sub-contractors to Western multinationals, depending on the advantage of low-paid migrant workers.

The rural experience of these new workers is oftentimes irrelevant or even considered a detriment to the manufacturing process.Migrants must liquidate their past and become a blank slate receptive to training. To quicken the transformation, employers draw attention to migrants’ deficiencies and missing skills. Furthermore, with hundreds of millions competing for jobs, migrants feel a perpetual sense of anxiety, continuously reminded of their replacability.

Workers-of-rural-origins are discriminated culturally and materially. Their younger cohorts in particular find themselves insecure, neither belonging to the city nor feeling able to return to a livelihood in the countryside. Some have their employment histories brought to an end from work injuries. Still some others, under desperate conditions, have taken their own lives. The priority given to economic development in China has reached a critical point where we must reflect on the deeper costs of a growth-above-all-else industrial policy.

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