Social Justice: Self-Promoting Do-Gooders Force Pay Cuts For Chinese Peasants

Abusive labor practices were uncovered at Foxconn, the massive electronics supplier that produces many Apple Computer products, after a recent Fair Labor Association investigation. So why were employees used to working 70 to 80 hours a week angry after Foxconn announced it would limit the work week to 49 hours?

It turns out workers would rather negotiate their own hours based on individual preference than conform to an arbitrary limit, especially one determined by unrelated third-parties instead of employee and employer. From Reuters:

“We are here to work and not to play, so our income is very important,” said Chen Yamei, 25, a Foxconn worker from Hunan who said she had worked at the factory for four years.

“We have just been told that we can only work a maximum of 36 hours a month of overtime. I tell you, a lot of us are unhappy with this. We think that 60 hours of overtime a month would be reasonable and that 36 hours would be too little,” she added. Chen said she now earned a bit over 4,000 yuan a month ($634).

By bowing to public pressure, Foxconn appeased calls from the Fair Labor Association (which is funded by the industries and firms it oversees, including Apple) for better working conditions, but upset the actual workers that the FLA ostensibly advocates for. Dramatically changing the production schedule might reduce output, but perhaps Foxconn and Apple value the positive media coverage and endorsements of purported labor activists more than the lost revenue. But what about the actual workers most directly impacted by these changes? Wouldn’t they like to work fewer hours and enjoy more leisure?

Evidently not:

“I don’t go out that much as there is nothing much to do. I do go out for a meal once in a while,” said Huang Hai, a 21-year-old man who said he had worked at Foxconn’s factory for about two years.

“This is a good company to work for because the working conditions are better than a lot of other small factories.”

Huang was waiting for a friend lined up outside the recruitment centre for prospective Foxconn employees.

“I didn’t like my first job at Foxconn because it was very repetitive. It was mainly manual work and I had to hammer nails everyday,” said Huang. “Now it’s better because I work with computers.”

If this account is accurate, then this situation seems mutually beneficial: Foxconn employees work long and intensive hours, but Foxconn has to offer good working conditions and career mobility to keep its workers from defecting to a competitor.

Henry Blodget shows that the FLA’s own findings illustrate employees’ contentment:

Of the hundreds of Foxconn workers the FLA surveyed, here’s what they found: 48 percent of workers thought their hours were reasonable, 34 percent said they wanted to work more hours, and only 18 percent felt they worked too much. Catch that? 82 percent of Foxconn’s workers either think their hours are reasonable or want to work more hours. But the FLA is saying that the “overwork” at Foxconn is a disgrace and must immediately be changed!

The FLA and other self-proclaimed labor welfare proponents are surely congratulating themselves for forcing Foxconn to alter its business practices. But the workers they claim to be protecting might feel differently. As Scott Norvell observed this morning, “how would American workers feel if Chinese busybodies forced them to cut back on their overtime?”

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