|Foxconn industrial complex, Shenzhen, China|
Blog Entry #45: The Path and Price of Consumption: From Shenzhen to Hong Kong
|Ship docked at Harbor City Mall|
|Inside the Harbor City Mall|
|Toy Story at the Harbor City Mall|
It is perhaps fitting that one must disembark from ship in the Hong Kong harbor through the large upscale Harbor City shopping mall filled with high priced consumer items, from Gucci to Rolex. Our only day in the Hong Kong area in many ways felt bi-polar: we began and ended the day in Hong Kong, dazzled by its skyline glittering across the bay, filled with the corporate offices and financial centers for many of the world’s largest corporations, especially electronics. We spent the middle part of the day visiting China’s “miracle city” of Shenzhen, on the edges of Foxconn’s industrial complex, home to over 400,000 workers who assemble the digital electronic goods that fill our stores, from Apple iPads to Samsung and Kodak cameras.
|Fishing Village and Hong Kong skyline|
The entrance into Hong Kong harbor from the South China is stunning. Sunrise revealed misty landscapes of still forested hills and islands taking shape in the soft morning light. As we moved west toward Hong Kong island, the passage began to narrow, and we caught glimpses of the first high rises. Tucked here and there are small fishing villages, a reminder of the region’s not-too-distant economy, but increasingly crowded out by this amazing vertical enclave.
|Eva with home towers behind|
As we rounded one bend to reveal a set of 4 high rise apartment buildings, one of my students, Eva, said excitedly, “That’s my home!” Herself from Hong Kong, she pointed to the 9th floor apartment where she was raised and where her parents still live.
And then we entered the harbor area, where the dueling skylines of Hong Kong island to the south, and Kowloon where we were docking to the north, suddenly arose from the waterfront. To say it takes one’s breath away is an understatement.
While enjoying breakfast on the deck with the Hong Kong skyline looming behind, I was focused on getting my group together to spend the day examining environmental and labor issues in the vast Chinese industrial zones that lie just beyond the Hong Kong border in Shenzhen, on the China mainland.
|Hong Kong street in Kowloon warehouse district|
|In the elevator heading to SACOM|
|Yi Yi Cheng of SACOM speaks to our group in the SACOM office|
A year ago I had never heard of Foxconn, a Taiwanese based multinational founded in 1974, and now one of the largest employers in the world, with over a million workers in China alone, assembling electronics and other consumer items for many of the world’s largest corporations. Many of the brands we are most familiar with – Apple, Dell, Toshiba and HP computers, as well as Kodak, Samsung, and Panasonic cameras – are made by workers in Foxconn factories.
|Entrance to Foxconn|
|SACOM Protest at Apple store opening in Hong Kong|
|SACOM protest at Hong Kong Apple Store opening|
SACOM reports that the actual cost of manufacturing an iPhone is US$6.54, though they retail for several hundred dollars. Doubling the monthly wage of workers would hardly dent Apple’s profits, but could get workers closer to earning a living wage. Instead workers are often forced to accrue 100 hours of overtime per month just to earn enough to get by.
SACOM carried out a very effective action when Apple opened its new 2-story Apple store in the glass-enclosed walkway at the Hong Kong International Finance Center, unfurling a large “iSlave” banner to emphasize the working conditions that produce these gleaming gadgets. Pat and I later walked by the Hong Kong Apple store that night.
Following our visit to SACOM, we left for our true destination, Shenzhen, only 30 km but two border crossings away (under China’s “One country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong largely maintains autonomy in its economy and government, including a separate currency and driving on the left side of the road, British-style).
|Workers residence in Shenzhen|
|Entering the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone|
Instead, at one of the entrances to Foxconn, we met Jenny Chan, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of London who is doing her field research on labor conditions at Foxconn. Previous to this Jenny worked for several years with SACOM, so she knows both the workers and their issues well.
|Jenny Chan, formerly of SACOM|
|Foxconn made products in the Retail Store|
|Longhua from bridge connecting to Foxconn|
|Foxconn HQ from bridge connecting to Longhua neighborhood|
|Foxconn Workers Residence, Longhua neighborhood|
|Bars on windows of Foxconn Workers Apartments|
|Security guard, Foxconn Residence|
|Pat walking to dinner in Hong Kong|
|Hong Kong Financial district|
At the end of the day I know there are no easy answers as China rushes full steam ahead into the global economy in its attempt to modernize and develop itself and lifts its people out of poverty. But that should not make those of us on the consumer end of the “Chinese miracle” blind to the very high costs being borne by millions of young Chinese workers to satisfy the extreme economic pressures exerted by multinational corporations such as Apple and Wal-Mart to keep reducing production costs.
My admiration for people like Yi Yi and Jenny, and small NGOs like SACOM, is boundless as they take on the Foxconns and Apples of the world in order to improve conditions for Chinese workers. We the consumers can do our part by demanding that the corporations we buy our products from insists on ethical wages and working conditions in the factories that produce them.