April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

So recently I just listened to This American Life’s “Retraction” of Mike Daisy’s story about Foxconn. I get it. Journalistic honesty is important, I still felt bad for Mike Daisy. But listening to this painful berating of Daisy started to get me thinking…

I’m TAing for an urban history class at Barnard this semester. most of the reading is, predictably about housing, and of course about the ‘quality’ of cities (though ‘vulgar Marxist’ qualitative concerns do make a cameo appearance via Ernst May and an unsure of himself Hilberseimer)—and much of this literature is written with the American/European worker in mind. The focus of this discourse wasn’t so much on inhumane conditions of factory work, but on a quality of life standard, a concern that shaped the face of EuroAmerican cities. The overriding concern of planners in Europe and the United States was that industrial capitalism (as opposed to the quality of social life) was over-determining the shape and texture of our cities.

Does a similar discourse exist in Shenzhen? I’d be curious to find out. This enough is clear:  that the mobilization of a massive economy through the development of Free Trade Zones is the driving force behind Chinese urbanism today. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t recreational facilities at the Foxconn plant (a google image search yielded images of factories with well appointed recreational amenities), by the way this doesn’t mean that sub-standard living conditions don’t actually exist, they are simply not that easy to find on the internet. Even the fact that the Chinese Factory owners (or Taiwanese or Singaporean factory owners operating in China, to say nothing of the American companies that they supply) seem to understand what it means to put its best face forward, at the very least communicates an understanding about what constitutes humane and even pleasant working conditions. The fact is that young Chinese workers don’t come to Shenzhen to play basketball, they come to Shenzhen to work overtime and earn as much money as they can so that they can bring it back home to help support their families, who often live hundreds of miles away. Of course they won’t complain about overtime—they need overtime.

Complicating factors… As Charles Duhigg pointed out in an interview with Ira Glass, an increase in pay given to Foxconn workers after the break of the NY Times  story led to a subsequent rent increase for workers after landlords caught wind of a pay raise. This is just more ‘evidence’ that what we’re dealing with here isn’t just the guarantee of ‘humane’ working conditions, but rather a cultural problem, a well-worn problem—the old problem of the worker (and his/her whole life world), reconfigured in a now globalized  not quite post-industrial society.  I know that this is not news… but this is a problem I think everyone should be obsessed with…

One of my favorite moments in the “retraction” was when Ira Glass starts wondering if he should feel bad about his iphone—starting off by saying that he’s “not so sure” he should feel bad. Duhigg comes in and says “of course you should feel bad, Ira, you created these conditions.”

Next paras…

Post-Fordism, after all is  simply the exportation of sub-standard working conditions to ‘developing’ economies abroad.

There’s a split here between daily life and a distant ‘family life’ (intra national diaspora and free trade zones)

TBC… I need to think about this some more.


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