Apple presides over a global technology empire, but the economic landscapes it shapes around the world are strangely uneven. With its hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide, Apple's manufacturing partner Foxconn works very differently in two hemispheres of the Global South.
The think tank Economic Policy Institute recently hosted a forum to discuss a tale of two Foxconns: between Foxconn and Apple workers in China and Brazil, the contrast is as crisp as a touchscreen icon.
According to EPI, Chinese workers at Foxconn in Shenzhen earn less than US $290 per month, while in Brazil the basic monthly wage is about twice that. A maximum work week for Chinese workers, in theory (though employers regularly violate labor laws), can be up to 60 to 70 hours per week, with five days vacation after a year. Work weeks for Brazilian employees are capped at 44 hours, with 30 days of paid vacation, plus other perks like a profit-sharing deal for workers.
Clearly, some of the differences can be attributed to regional economic disparities, but Brazil and China are often seen as twin examples of "emerging economies." So why would employees of the same company fare so differently?
There have been reams of reports of abuses and exploitation in Foxconn facilities in China, ranging from militaristic work regimens to psychological trauma afflicting exhausted young workers. Apple and Foxconn has vowed to improve conditions by stepping up inspections and offering mediagenic amenities like factory tennis courts. But the contrasting example of Brazil might show how working conditions might change from the bottom up, through a strong labor movement.
Luis Carlos de Oliveira, vice president of the Metalworkers Union of Jundiai, spoke at the EPI event about his experience with Foxconn's operations in Jundlai, Brazil, near the city of Sao Paolo. When Foxconn first arrived in 2007 to launch manufacturing operations for Dell, HP and Motorola, he recalled, there was a massive hiring spree and accelerated factory production. Inevitably, labor problems followed, such as conflicts with supervisors and high risks of workplace injuries. Then labor organizers got involved, backed by a broad (though by no means perfectly constructed) Brazilian labor law.
In an interview with In These Times, de Oliveira explained that even though the union initially did not have a strong base within the Foxconn facility itself, the labor struggles still gathered steam, primarily by organizing outside the factory grounds:
We quickly decided that what we needed to do was have assemblies, rank-and-file meetings, at the factory gate when the people were coming on and off shifts. And that we we could start to generate some union action to try and correct the situation. And only through those series of assemblies at the factory gates did we generate the beginning of some changes, the beginning of the company accepting that there was a role for the union.
At first, the management resisted the union pressure, de Oliveira said:
Their attitude at the very beginning was very rigid, and maybe this is about Chinese culture, but they thought that they could just come in and do what they wanted since they were the owners. So if we didn't have mobilization, if we didn't successfully reach dialogue through these series of assemblies at the factory gate, we told them that we were going to have some strikes.
De Oliveira recalled an initial "cultural shock period," when the Taiwan-owned company was introduced to a workforce accustomed to a strong welfare state and labor apparatus. Then things started to change for Foxconn workers: improvements in the supervision system, better transportation for workers and more protective occupational health safeguards to protect against injury.
More recently, when Apple came to town (also using Foxconn as a contract manufacturer, though on a smaller scale), de Oliveira said the union could build on its early organizing experiences and keep on the pressure to provide decent working conditions.
Assuming that Foxconn has the same incentive to maximize exploitation in both of these relatively cheap labor pools, at least some of the contrasts might be traced to what labor activists call "the union advantage": the link between unionization and higher pay, better benefits, and fairer treatment on the job.
Brazil and China do of course diverge sharply in their political systems (democracy vs. one-party state) and the the state's relationship with labor (China clearly lacks Brazil's robust trade unions). But both have undergone labor struggles and political upheaval in their modern history, and it's not impossible to envision an independent labor movement emerging in China, particularly as multinationals continue to expose global economic disparities.
According to the standard neoliberal talking points, the law of the "free market" seems to be the only universal principle governing the economic fate of the working masses. But the struggles of Brazilian Foxconn workers speak to another universal: the potential of a strong labor movement to lift up workers and their surrounding communities.
One Chinese Foxconn worker interviewed by NPR's Marketplace tried to put his expectations and aspirations in the context of China's economy.
I've got a cousin who lives in the U.S., and from what I understand, the U.S. is a very rich country, at its peak; I can only dream of what it must be like. But China is so poor. I think it's useless for us to judge each others' countries without truly understanding the realities on the ground.
But as long as corporations can freely cross national boundaries, workers' rights should be just as global. In terms of the disparities between working conditions in China and Brazil, De Oliveira said:
Obviously, we need to respect the national and regional differences wherever these companies are working to a certain degree, yes. But... wherever this work is going on, these are human beings that are doing it. These are people.
And that means that they have rights and deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter where they live.