By Mahesh Sharma

On 6 May 2010, Foxconn quality control worker Lu Xin jumped from the sixth floor of an apartment complex in the technology manufacturer’s campus in Shenzhen, China.

Lu had moved to Shenzhen to work for Foxconn so he could support his family in rural China. He worked hard to send back thousands of yuan back home.

A rising tide?

Lu was the seventh of 17 Foxconn workers to commit suicide this year, and his experiences are detailed in the essay “Suicide as protest for the new generation of Chinese migrant workers: Foxconn, Global Capital, and the State” prepared by professor Ngai Pun and activist Jenny Chan from the Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour group.

Just weeks after Lu’s death, the suicides caught the attention of the global media, which raised questions about Foxconn’s working conditions given the company’s customers included Nokia, Apple and HP.

While there is no definite connection between the suicides and the working conditions, it has provided a platform for various groups to voice deeper concerns about wages, working hours and treatment of workers at factories across China.

Finding an answer

HP has taken a step to try and rectify matters, by taking part in a trial aimed to bring corporate social responsibility back into the workers’ sphere, educating them about their rights and providing ways for them to resolve issues and create a better working environment.

The two-year pilot program took place in 2007 in Dongguan, southern China, and involved HP, its Chinese suppliers Delta Electronics and Chicony, as well as three non-governmental organisations, SACOM, Labor Education and Service Network (LESN) and the Chinese Working Women Network (CWWN).

SACOM facilitated and evaluated the training projects at two factories, which were organised by LESN and CWWN, SACOM’s Chan says.

At Delta Electronics, LESN trained 1549 workers in basic labour rights — including providing every worker with a pocket-sized guide to the EICC and Chinese Labour laws in simplified Chinese — and also conducted several consultations for middle and lower management staff in corporate responsibility.

At the Chicony factory, CWWN trained one group of 2714 frontline machine operators and a second group of 30 worker committee members. It also established a hotline for workers to report problems confidentially, which helped to “manage grievances and to nurture a positive work culture”.

The pilot was the first time that a vendor, suppliers and not-for-profit groups all worked together to implement a worker-based CSR model for worker rights, according to SACOM’s Chan.

“In total at these two factories, over 4000 workers gained better knowledge about legal rights and how, using their corporate mechanism, they could influence some decisions concerned with wages and working hours.

“This gives workers confidence. How would they negotiate or bargain with the managers or the facilitation of communication is improved.”

She says one key to the project’s success was that it was run by independent groups, using independent sources of funding.

“We don’t trust the suppliers themselves would be willing to devote lots of time and resources, or to raise awareness about worker rights, simply because the factories themselves have to keep just-in-time delivery and are much more concerned about production time and efficiency.

“So being a facilitator as well as an independent project evaluator, SACOM had a kind of autonomy or independence to make a judgement about how far this program has achieved, what are the limitations, what is the next step?”

While she criticises HP for its lack of follow-up on the pilot program, she says the vendor was more genuine than its competitors.

HP did not provide a spokesperson for comment for this story and referred to the CSR measures outlined on its website.

(This is an abridged version of the article. The full version of the article is originally issued here, or available here as a pdf file.)