Organizational Communication in the News

Case Studies of Organizations and Organizational Communication in the Media

Apple: Foxconn, Other Suppliers’ Factories To Be Audited By Fair Labor Association


Responding to recent concerns about the labor practices at its suppliers, Apple this morning said the non-profit Fair Labor Association will conduct “special voluntary audits” of the company’s final assembly providers, including Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu.

Story length: 235 words

Access the full story here.

Kristen Lucas (University of Louisville) suggests some key “Takeaways” on the story:

In the Foxconn case, it seems that everyone is talking about dignity. Chinese sociologists blamed the suicides on a lack the lack of dignity in workers’ lives. Workers themselves often lamented that they had no dignity. On the other side, Foxconn implemented some changes in hopes that these would increase employee dignity. Apple repeatedly espoused its commitment to worker dignity in its Supplier Code of Conduct and other CSR communications. But, despite all this attention and commitment to dignity, no one seemed to take it seriously. Instead they talked about metrics: hours worked, hourly wage rates, number of underage employee violations. There seemed to be a real disconnect between corporate rhetoric of dignity and the lived experience of dignity of the workers.

In our JBE article, Dongjing Kang, Zhou Li, and I applied a sociological framework for analyzing dignity (Hodson, 2001). We examined media accounts to see if there was evidence of indignity and there was: Overwork, mismanagement and abuse (where most of the communication occurs), limits to autonomy, and contradictions of employee participation. But we also dug deeper—into ways that the organizational structure and the larger cultural milieu affected these experiences.

Foxconn operates as a total institution. Goffman coined this term in the 1960s to refer to organizations where its members live, eat, play, work, and sleep in bureaucratically administered rounds of “batch” existence. Think asylum patients and prison inmates. Foxconn employees aren’t much different. They not only work 12-hour days at Foxconn, but when they get off work, most eat at a Foxconn canteen (where they are subjected to company control and discipline), participate in Foxconn provided recreational activities (if they have the energy; but again where they are subjected to company control and discipline), then they sleep in Foxconn dorms (where they are subjected to company control and discipline). Add to this an organizational culture that prides itself on militaristic training methods, mechanistic control, and dehumanizing and humiliating discipline, and you’ve got a perfect storm for violating employees’ dignity.

It might be simple for an outsider to say, “Just find another job!” But Chinese government controls materially and legally limit the options for housing and employment for migrants who are not registered in a city household. And then there is the claim that workers should simply make sacrifices for themselves, their families, and the greater economic good. While that may have worked with their parents’ generation, cultural changes in China are making sacrifices-for-the-sake-of-sacrifice far less appealing. We see the silencing of Maoist discourses (e.g., nobility comes from sacrificing for the country, regardless of what role you play) and the crescendo of entrepreneurial discourses (e.g., a push for young people to get ti mian jobs to earn face for themselves and their families; and a disparaging of factory jobs as suzhi di, or of low human quality).

So what I’m saying here is:

  1. Foxconn’s and Apple’s efforts, although the invoke the language of dignity, are not addressing the real dignity issues at hand.
  2. Foxconn employees are subjected to the full range of undignifying work experiences (overwork, mismanagement and abuse, limits on autonomy, and contradictions of participation), which are only exacerbated by the organizational structure.
  3. Chinese meanings of work have changed in the past generation. While long hours at an unglamorous job may have been heralded as noble only one or two generations ago (based on Maoist discourse), it no longer is the case. New entrepreneurial discourses are branding these factory jobs as suzhi di and setting up employees for a loss of face for not being able to secure a timian job.
  4. Material and legal constraints placed on workers because of their migrant status are creating a situation in which employees may legitimately feel that there are no other options.

Read more “Takeaways” from Kristen and other scholars here.

Read a related academic article by Kristen Lucas, Dongjing Kang and Zhou Li: “Workplace Dignity in a Total Institution: Examining the Experiences of Foxconn’s Migrant Workforce” in the Journal of Business Ethics

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