To most readers in our community, Foxconn (Hon Hai Precision Industry), the Taiwanese multinational electronics manufacturer and Apple’s primary contractor, is notorious for its despotic labor regime that led to a series of workers’ suicides in China around 2010. Last winter, once again, Foxconn shocked the world as its plant in the city of Zhengzhou (capital of Henan province)—now the world-largest iPhone production base—witnessed a “great exodus.” Having been forced to work in a “closed-loop” system despite a dread outbreak of covid, thousands of workers rushed out of the locked entrances and commenced their home-returning journeys on foot. Soon, with support from the local governments, Foxconn was able to find a massive number of new workers to meet its production targets—to timely deliver the newest iPhone models to its global costumers. Yet, when the new recruits found that the promised high wage and workplace safety were nothing but elusive, they launched an even bigger uprising that further threatened Foxconn’s production. This time, their militant resistance ended up being quelled by the local police.

In my recent article, published right after this incident, I draw upon ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Zhengzhou’s Foxconn plant. This piece can help us make sense of the unexpected labor uprising amid China’s then draconian covid policy; more importantly, it elucidates some major changes in China’s industrial structure and labor politics in general.

As Capital Moves, the Chinese Labor Force Changes Drastically

Since China’s labor costs started to rise quickly more than a decade ago, manufacturing companies including Foxconn have resorted to a ‘spatial fix,’ relocating production lines to the country’s inland provinces and, increasingly, to other places such as Vietnam and India where labor is still relatively cheap. While in the past the majority of Chinese migrant workers left their hometowns, which were typically interior agricultural regions and worked in the coastal Special Economic Zones (SEZs), today, an increasing number of them become in-province migrants, working in nearby towns and cities which have been rapidly industrialized. This is why, in the case of Zhengzhou Foxconn, more than 90 percent of the workers are Henan natives, some of whom were able to go home on foot in the recent “great exodus.” Moreover, the manufacturing workforce is aging rapidly, with an average age of about 40 years old. In other words, it is not the “factory girls and boys” who are making our iPhones anymore, but it’s the uncles and aunties instead. As I explain later, these demographic changes have profoundly reshaped labor politics.

The Rise of “Gig Manufacturing”

Contrary to conventional expectations, Chinese manufacturing workers today prefer gig work to “formal” employment. To begin with, surprising to many, China has seen a process of labor “formalization” recently. In 2014, the central government promulgated a new law that restricts employers from hiring student interns and dispatch workers, who are temporary contractors recruited by a dispatch agency independent from the enterprise—a practice that Foxconn used to be infamous for. Today, in Zhengzhou Foxconn, most employees would be offered a formal contract with social insurance, at least on paper. Yet, a large portion of these workers would rather turn themselves into de facto informal labor: they enter the factory, work there for a few months, and then voluntarily leave after the peak season; the next year, many return to the same factory as new hires. While in the past the Chinese migrant workforce would usually stay in the same factory or city for multiple years and only visit home once a year, today, a manufacturing job today resembles a temporary job in the “gig economy” that has prevailed in post-industrialized neoliberal societies. In the research paper, I call this phenomenon “gig manufacturing.”

Bring “Social Reproduction” in Labor-Regime Analysis

So, why would workers rather give up benefits coming with a formal contract and stay in a more precarious position? To solve this puzzle, I draw on the recently revived Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) and develop an analytical framework that takes into account both factors at the point of production and at labor’s social reproduction.

At the point of production, that is, the iPhone workshop, because the company has kept the base wage so low—almost identical with Zhengzhou’s minimum wage (2100 yuan [appx. 300 USD]/month), all workers count on having opportunities to work overtime to make extra incomes. I call this “hoarding of overtime.” In the peak season, usually the summer time before Apple’s new product release in September, a worker can make as much as 6000-8000 yuan (appx.900-1400USD)/month as a result of long hours of overtime. But after the peak season, they would find it not worthwhile to only take regular shifts. To make a formal contract even less attractive, a worker cannot receive retirement benefits until they have worked in the same city for 15 years—a condition most Foxconn workers are not qualified for.

Meanwhile, at the point of social reproduction, which is essentially workers’ families in rural communities, there has been an intensification of demand for workers’ caring labor for children and the elderly—a highly gendered demand that affect moms working in Foxconn disproportionately. Such a rising emphasis on care work is a result of rapid commodification of social reproduction including privatization of childcare, eldercare and education in rural China.

Put together, these factors create a dilemma for these workers: dire need of cash income keeps propelling rural parents, who make a significant portion of the workforce, to come to work at Foxconn; the family’s demand for caring and emotional labor, on the other hand, is pulling workers, especially mothers, back to the family. In the end, many of the workers end up turning this job a seasonal gig.

Broader Implications

The case of Zhengzhou Foxconn is both extraordinary and ordinary. It is extraordinary because it is an extreme case in which the contradiction between capital accumulation and people’s social reproduction has led to a massive crisis—to meet shareholders’ request, workers’ safety and lives come secondary. It is ordinary because such contradictions are built-in features of our current global capitalist system. As Foxconn continues its “spatial fix” by relocating many facilities to Vietnam, India, Wisconsin (a failed deal though) and Ohio, and many other places across the world, we are going to see many more tragic stories resembling that of Zhengzhou today and probably that of Shenzhen ten years ago (the serial suicides) unfolding in the years to come. It is precisely the “globality” of global capitalism that connects each and every one of us.

Moreover, with “gig manufacturing” and other forms of labor informalization sweeping the world, it is getting increasingly difficult to organize at the point of production. As many social reproduction feminists point out, the site of social reproduction has become more important than ever, as it occupies a key strategic position in organizing. Discourses should be around the all-encompassing notion of social reproduction, demanding universal welfare provisions from childcare, healthcare, eldercare, to universal rights to housing and education, to labor protections in these sectors. While in a 20th century factory, it was the same space and labor process that united workers, in 21st century China and beyond, it is actually the unconditional rights to a decent livelihood that should become the foundation for solidarity building.

Yige Dong is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

To read more, see Yige Dong. “The Dilemma of Foxconn Moms: Social Reproduction and the Rise of ‘Gig Manufacturing’ in China” in Critical Sociology 2022.

Image by iphonedigital via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)