Foxconn Workers Labor Under Guard After Riot Shuts Plant

Security teams wearing riot helmets and wielding plastic shields marched around a Foxconn Technology Group factory in northern China in a sign that tensions remain high after a fight between 2,000 workers halted production.

Foxconn’s complex, home to 79,000 workers in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, still shows damage caused by a Sept. 23 clash in which a dormitory fight escalated into a riot finally quelled by hundreds of security guards and police. More than 40 people were hospitalized in the melee that left shattered windows and damaged parked cars across the campus.

Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou has moved to improve conditions at his factories in recent years, after a spate of suicides and pressure from the company’s largest customer, Apple Inc. (AAPL) The unrest underscores the social strains of a Chinese export- manufacturing model where thousands of workers, mostly young, work long hours in military-style conditions, sleeping in dormitories and surrounded by security guards.

“The guards here use gangster style to manage,” Fang Zhongyang, 23, said outside campus gates. “We are not against following rules but you have to tell us why. They won’t explain things and we feel like we cannot communicate with them.”

Fang, from nearby Henan province, has worked at Foxconn for two years. He started in Shenzhen, the company’s biggest facility, making Apple iPhones and moved to Taiyuan four months ago after being told that Foxconn wasn’t going to make those products there anymore.

‘Fierce’ Guards

One guard, a young woman, yelled at a reporter for interviewing workers near the southern gate and told employees to get back inside. She ordered the reporter to go across the street, saying the space outside the gate was Foxconn property.

“They are quite formidable,” said Gao Bo, 25, who has worked there for six months. “They watch quite closely and speak fiercely.”

As he spoke, platoons in green uniforms kept formation inside the campus.

Louis Woo, a spokesman for the Taipei-based company, said he was unaware of the accusations against the guards.

“If there’s any truth to these allegations, we’ll take severe action against any security guards, even though we don’t hire them directly,” Woo said by phone yesterday.

Foxconn isn’t hiring more security, yet it has asked government officials to help monitor the situation. Woo declined to say what products were made at the Taiyuan factory. The employees interviewed said they made small components.

Poorly Trained

Gou agreed with a management decision to shut production for a day after the Sept. 23 fight, the company said. Foxconn said it expected limited impact on production.

Workers said the fight started in a dormitory and escalated when guards employed by independent contractors responded with excessive force. Such tension is typical in China, said Geoffrey Crothall, a director at rights group China Labor Bulletin.

“Factory workers anywhere, beyond Foxconn, never have a good word to say about security guards,” Crothall said yesterday. “Their training is minimal, they’re recruited en masse and the requirements are not much.”

Woo declined to comment on the level of training for the guards.

Foxconn employs more than 1.2 million workers in at least 18 countries, including China, Brazil, Taiwan, Vietnam and Mexico. It is the primary supplier of Apple’s iPad and iPhone, Sony Corp. (6758)’s PlayStation game console and TVs, and Nintendo Co.’s Wii console.

Bad Food, Dirty Bathrooms

The average worker at the Taiyuan plant is 20 years old, with 65 percent being male and 77 percent coming from local Shanxi province, according to a company official, who declined to be identified because of the police investigation. That’s three years younger than the average worker at Foxconn’s Shenzhen factories producing Apple products, according to a March report from the Fair Labor Association, which audited the company’s working conditions.

Foxconn in August raised salaries by more than 16 percent at a Zhengzhou factory making iPhones and halved the probation period for new workers after the FLA said the company was ahead of schedule in improving conditions. Work hours exceeded targets and legal mandates, the FLA said.

Taiyuan workers start at a monthly salary of 1,800 yuan ($286) and can get a 200-yuan raise after three months. They also get bonuses during Chinese New Year, after six months on the job and after a year. Employees can work as much as 36 hours of overtime a month, the company official said yesterday.

Employees outside the factory said the pay was good, though their living conditions were not. The food was of low quality, dorm rooms had four bunk beds for eight people, and the shared bathrooms weren’t clean.

“The dormitories are too crowded,” said a 24-year-old worker identifying himself as Wang. “I don’t sleep well because it’s noisy. The environment isn’t good.”

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