Suicide or strike? A tale of two work cultures

Minnie Chan
17 June 2010

When Li Hai jumped to his death from the fifth floor of his dormitory at Foxconn’s factory in Longhua, Shenzhen, last month, other young workers from Hunan were taking part in a strike at a Honda car parts factory in Foshan.

The two cases speak volumes about contrasting management styles – and worker attitudes – at Japanese-owned Honda and Taiwanese-owned Foxconn.

“Young migrant workers at both Honda and Foxconn have faced the same problems – being underpaid, poor working conditions and being stuck in dead-end jobs,” a 19-year-old intern at the Honda factory said. “But I never thought of resorting to such a stupid way [committing suicide] to solve problems.

“It’s not worth workers sacrificing their lives in exchange for a pay rise.”

The strike, which saw 1,800 workers demanding better pay walk off the job for more than two weeks, was led by two workers from Hunan, both in their twenties. The average age of the strikers was only 20. They went back to work on June 4 after Honda Auto Parts Manufacturing agreed to a 500 yuan (HK$570) pay rise.

Li, 19, who died on May 25, was the ninth Foxconn worker to leap to his death this year, and the third from Hunan. Another Foxconn worker died after jumping off a building at the Longhua complex the next night.

Workers at Honda Auto Parts said it was hard for them to imagine conditions at Foxconn, known for its rigid management style, rapid assembly line and long hours.

“Unlike Foxconn, neither our section heads nor the Japanese management ever swear at us,” a worker in the Honda Auto Parts foundry said. “We’re only criticised if we make serious mistakes. I’ve heard that workers at Foxconn are not allowed to talk at work and can be fined for making mistakes. That would never happen to us because Honda has no such punishment system.”

Four days after Li’s death, Foxconn announced pay rises averaging 20 per cent for half the workers at its Shenzhen factories. It followed that with promises of two more increases and said it would tone down its harsh management style.

The Honda Auto Parts intern, also from Hunan, is studying at a vocational school in Qingyuan, Guangdong. He was recruited last year and will become a regular, full-time worker next month after finishing his one-year internship. He said he was very excited when selected as an intern by Honda, Japan’s No2 carmaker, and had dreamed of becoming a mechanic and opening his own repair shop in four years.

But his co-workers told him he wouldn’t be able to fulfil those dreams by working for Honda.

“I found they are right,” he said. “As an intern, my basic salary is just 800 yuan. Honda doesn’t encourage too much overtime. My maximum monthly income is around 1,000 yuan if I work three days of overtime.

“I still needed to pay 4,000 yuan of school fees during my internship at Honda this year. And I have to spend several hundred yuan on food, clothes and other expenses as Honda just provides us with one meal each working day.”

But compared with workers at Foxconn, three of his colleagues, all 21 years old, said they felt lucky they were recruited by Honda.

“We were all outstanding classmates in our technical school because teachers only recommend good students to big companies like Honda or Foxconn,” the foundry worker said. “But at Honda, we enjoy more freedom than workers at Foxconn.”

While workers at Foxconn can struggle to name a roommate or worker in the same section, another of the Honda 21-year-olds said ties among the 100-odd co-workers in a department at the Foshan factory were very close, especially if they came from the same hometowns or technical schools.

But when talking about their futures, the young men at Honda, who all requested anonymity because they feared reprisals from management, said they faced the same frustrations as Foxconn workers.

When they were studying, one hoped to buy a city apartment before getting married, one planned to run a transport fleet and one wanted to be a racing-car mechanic. They all say their days on the production lines at Honda have dashed those hopes.

“Nothing we learned at technical school has ever been put into practice at Honda. We are just doing simple, repetitive and boring jobs every day,” one said.

“For example, I learned how to command large machine tools at school, but I’ve never even touched a machine tool at the Honda factory because of the finer subdivision of labour in Japanese factories.”

Another complained that the many levels of management had hindered their development.

“There are five levels in our management system, while each level has 15 grades,” he said. “If I want to be promoted, I need to spend at least 15 years to become a section head, who just earns several hundred yuan more than a first-line worker each month.”

Independent labour rights activist Liu Kaiming, director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen, said many Japanese firms like Honda had learned people-oriented management skills from American and European enterprises over the past two decades.

“But Taiwanese companies like Foxconn still implement the semi-militarised management they learned from Japan in the 1950s and 1960s,” Liu said. “Workers at Foxconn have lost their identities after being trained to obey management without question, but people working at Honda have maintained their passion and innovation under a more human working environment.”

Professor Chang Kai, director of the Institute of Labour Relations at Renmin University, who helped the Honda workers negotiate the pay deal with management that ended their strike, said it was irresponsible to criticise young workers at Foxconn as weak.
“When dealing with the same demand for better pay, young workers at Honda could be so rational and actively protect their human rights, while some of their Foxconn peers went to extremes just because of different management styles,” he said.

“Honda workers have kept their own culture but young people at Foxconn have been assimilated by their company.”

Chang said Foxconn’s low wages and excessive overtime demands should be blamed for the breakdown in interpersonal relations at its factories.

“Honda workers could be so active and clever because they have more time to think and cultivate connections after work, while Foxconn workers spend too much time at work,” he said.

Chang said strikes would continue until overseas investors like Honda learned to share their profits with their workers.

“Honda still makes a good profit, even after agreeing to a 34 per cent wage increase for its workers.”

Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said Asian entrepreneurs, including those from Japan and Taiwan, did not recognise the need to share the fruits of their success with workers.

“That’s why so many strikes have taken place in Taiwanese and Japanese factories on the mainland recently, because the basic salary of their workers is even less than that in state-owned Chinese enterprises.”

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