Well, it looks like Amazon is back in the hot seat - that’s if it has ever got off of it. Their latest scandal involves their supplier, Foxconn, exploiting more than 1,000 school children in their Hengyang factory, in the Hunan province of China. Disguised as 'interns', the 16-18-year-old students have been made to work overtime, as well as night-shifts to meet production targets for the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Kindle devices. Under Chinese Labour law, 16-18-year-olds can work, but not overtime or at night. However, this is not just about giving Amazon another slap on the wrist. To tackle this, we need to look at it from an international, domestic and local level.
It has only been a year since Amazon sealed a deal with Foxconn for 30 more production lines in the factory. However, the geography of Hengyang makes this unique from the tried and tested coastal manufacturing hubs in Shenzhen and Shanghai. These cities have received most of China’s foreign investment since its open-door policy initiated in 1979. Hunan remains one of the provinces with the lowest wages, and the minimum in Hengyang – 1,280 yuan a month – is barely half that in Shenzhen, where Foxconn’s Apple factory is based. So, how to tackle this? Due to its more competitive wages, Hengyang serves as the newest poster child for transnational companies endeavouring for an ever-faster race to the bottom. If Amazon is fully committed to improving conditions, it needs to facilitate more independent reviews rather than more public-relations rhetoric embellished with empty-promises. We need more of a middle-ground between Bezos as the world’s richest man, and children being forced to work 10-hour shifts, 6 days a week when they should be in education.
It is important to note that this story was not unearthed by Amazon or the Chinese government despite them being the two primary actors that should be rooting out these crimes. It was exposed by the US-based China Labour Watch: an NGO committed to exposing the labour law breaches. Thus, who discovered the exploitation is also an important part of the problem. China’s ‘economic miracle’ is mainly owed to the model of long hours and low pay. Taking such a hard-line approach would be like looking a gift horse in the mouth for the government. Alas, it seems that the economic interests of both actors will continue to take precedence. Yet, the Chinese government also has an interest in questioning these private companies that are breaking Chinese laws. After all, the market might be free, but the government in China continues to rule with an iron fist. From this perspective, resolutions to these crimes are possible.
Regarding Foxconn, one might argue that they are like a rock in a hard place. Despite the low wages driving up profits, only a small percentage of the total cost of these Amazon products goes to the company. But even still, Foxconn is the largest private employer in China with an annual growth rate of 4.2% not to mention its CEO, Terry Gou, having a reported fortune of £5.3bn. Furthermore, it’s not as if this is the first time this has happened. In 2017, 3,000 students helped build the new iPhone X with reports of them being made to work 11-hour-days as part of a 3-month mandatory internship. However, this could be the last time it makes the violation. With the company trying to diversify away from Apple, it’ll be willing to resolve the matter to keep Amazon on the books. Nonetheless, Foxconn will only act as such if Amazon is truly committed to the independent reviews and audits. So, these violations cannot be solved just from the bottom-up; it also needs to be installed from the top-down.
Thus, to resolve this, we do not need some long morally infused rant about Amazon and its disregard for its workers - however tempting this may be. What we need is to look at how it isn’t just Amazon, it is both bigger and smaller than that. These violations are a timely metaphor of what our globalised economy, based on outsourcing, looks like. It’s also about the Chinese government and Foxconn, along with how Hengyang’s geography justifies wages being lower than average. It even comes down to the micro-level of the teachers who accepted payment to keep their students on the assembly lines. So, for these crimes to come to a close, all of those to blame must do their part. But alas, the odds of this seem slim.