Suicide as revolt

From the new September-October 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Workshop Talks

Suicide as revolt

by Htun Lin

Workers at the vast Foxconn manufacturing complex in China now struggle against daily torture that is not only physical but mental. A new technocratic ruling class purveys a bland, calm, Big Brother demeanor as the face of a daily torturous war on workers.

It is a new form of the banality of evil that combines Dickensian work conditions, crowded dormitories and a vast bureaucratic maze designed to make young individuals feel totally lost and alone when thrust into it by circumstances not of their own making.

This is what comes across in a research paper by Jenny Chan (The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 31, Aug. 12, 2013). Chan presents 17-year-old Tian Yu’s account of her desperate path leading to a suicide attempt after 37 days of employment at Foxconn which left her paralyzed from the waist down from three spinal fractures.

HELL, THY NAME IS FOXCONN

Tian tells of the 12-hour-day drudgery with a single day off every second week, working under extreme Taylorism where repetitive tasks are timed to the second, prolonged exposure to screens causes intense eye pain, unpaid compulsory work meetings are held every day, and omni-present company slogans harangue: “Value efficiency every minute, every second” and “Achieve goals or the sun will no longer rise.” Speed-up pits workers against each other. Shifts are constantly rotated and dormitories are randomly assigned so that workers cannot build bonds of friendship.

Chan identifies a pattern of these youthful suicides all sharing a connection to the assembly line torture: “Thousands of miles from the shelves of Apple Stores, and ordinarily concealed from consumer concern, lies the reality of alienating toil, that in extreme conditions, contributes to individual tragedies such as Tian’s.”

As Chan asserts, “The Foxconn suicide cluster represents a phenomenon that has no precedent in China’s industrial history.” Tian’s story, pre- and post-employment, is what tens of millions of China’s rural migrant youth are experiencing as Chinese enterprise zones become the world’s workshop.

SMILE AS WE WORK YOU TO DEATH

Company aphorisms and daily affirmations are meant to motivate, placate, and prod these young workers’ minds. In the midst of a cluster of suicides, Foxconn expects workers to smile and exchange niceties when spoken to.

Workers in my own shop know about this kind of manipulation. Like at Foxconn we face a plethora of happy talk “wise aphorisms” that have no relation to reality and are plastered all over the workshop: hullabaloo about “teamwork,” “world class healthcare,” “excellent customer service” and “best practices.”

We are lectured daily about meeting quotas. The whole place feels like a factory assembly line filled with line supervisors who treat us like robots, because they themselves have been transformed into robots.

A co-worker on the graveyard shift is now struggling, working alone with a workflow designed for three. She was actually called into the office for disciplinary action the other day, where, unbeknownst to her, a shop steward was already chosen for her.

The “problem” was that she wasn’t smiling enough and that she was clocking in “two minutes” too early everyday, which “costs the company in overtime.” She simply sat there motionless, expressionless, firm and resolute, and said to the tribunal calmly:  “I have nothing to smile about, I believe smiling is optional.”

CAPITALISM ISOLATES WORKERS

We share Tian Yu’s indignation which pushed her over the edge. We are lectured about “teamwork,” but isolated at our individual workstations to sink or swim on our own. Under capitalism we are isolated from each other. But more than ever, its globalization of production has made all of us more connected and dependent on each other than ever.

Commodities and capital are able to cross any borders in unfettered movement, while the human beings who produce them are tied to their assembly line.  As Marx described, it is a world in which things have social relations, while humans relate through things.

This kind of dehumanized isolation leads to an abyss where some of us see the only way out as suicide. The only way out of this morass is through the conscious cooperation amongst ourselves. The only way to fight back is to recognize our shared social existence and extinguish isolated individualism. We have to be daring enough not just to look into the abyss, but to look into each other’s eyes.

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