HONG KONG—As Taiwan-invested Foxconn promises to upgrade living conditions at its enormous electronics factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen after a spate of employee suicides, experts are calling for a rethink of traditional sweatshop business models amid a wave of industrial action.
Foxconn, which assembles Apple's iPhone, said Sunday it had signed an agreement with two property management companies to take over the running of on-site housing for 450,000 of its migrant workers.
Critics have blamed inhuman working conditions at the plant for the suicides, as China faces a wave of industrial action at foreign-invested companies over pay and working conditions.
Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, said that labor relations in China are governed by the triangular forces of government, management, and workers, which makes it hard for workers to negotiate improvements in conditions.
Li said it is becoming common practice in Shenzhen to outsource property management services for workers' dormitories to specialized companies.
"Around a half of companies in Shenzhen have already outsourced their dormitories to a property management company," he said.
"Shenzhen probably has a work force of about 600,000 people, so this is a growing trend."
"You have to remember that there is a triangular relationship between workers, management, and the government, which isn't quite the same as the situation in America and other countries ... where the government doesn't usually get involved," Li said.
He said that China's workers still lack a normal mechanism for bargaining for their rights and interests.
Beijing-based civil rights lawyer Cheng Hai said the property management company should genuinely solicit the opinions of workers.
"They should involve the workers and earnestly listen to their views," Cheng said. "When they pour out onto the streets in torrents like this, it's because we haven't been listening to the sorts of pressures that everybody is under."
"The workers and the union and society as a whole should be involved in coming up with some ideas about this," Cheng said.
"This isn't a problem that's confined to Foxconn. It's just a fairly extreme example of the sweatshop model of management."
"It relies on high productivity and low costs, and it doesn't really care about social benefits for the work force," he added.
Meanwhile, Foxconn has promised that the new dormitories will be in a more open layout than before, and better in tune with "new realities in China."
Terry Cheng, Foxconn Corporate executive vice president, was quoted as saying during an agreement signing ceremony that providing employees with basic necessities was no longer enough.
"[It] might have been sufficient in the past, but this arrangement no longer satisfies the needs of the young migrant workers of today," Cheng said.
Foxconn announced salary increases early this month after 11 Chinese employees apparently committed suicide by jumping from buildings this year, including 10 in Shenzhen.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.