I read an interesting but disturbing article in Business Week magazine that talked about Foxconn, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic components. What was startling was the picture of suicide nets hung outside its company dormitories. Apparently, 12 workers have leapt to their deaths within the past year.
When we see pictures of assembly factories and hear stories about suicide nets, it’s easy for us to point fingers at the Chinese and their inhumanity toward the working masses. However, the U.S. underwent a similar revolution 100 years ago. I can show you pictures of injured children who worked in factories 12 hours a day, six days a week. If they were injured, they were fired. There was no medical coverage or Workers Comp. We also went through an incredible labor/management struggle, which continues to this day. You can bet that China will go through its labor struggles as well. Fortunately, and perhaps in part due to global pressure, Foxconn has raised salaries and benefits.
Experts attribute the high suicide rate to repetitive stressful work environments and detachment from the familiar — whether it’s friends, family, or countryside. There’s a deep sense of isolation despite the sea of humanity – a disconnect, if you will.
Let me ask you a question: Isn’t that the condition here as well? Many of us remain equally chained to our desks or cubicles, even if they’re larger or have a better view. Americans work insane hours. In a study we did of HR That Works members, most respondents take fewer than two weeks of vacation per year. At least China mandates two weeks of vacation a year. In France, it’s eight weeks, and in England six weeks.
Where are the safety nets at your company? Is it the EAP? Is it a wellness program? Is it incredible support and flexibility? How do we keep ourselves and the people we work with sane when we’re all running 75 mph? That’s the question, whether you’re in the U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, or Brazil. How do you make sense of this thing we label as “work” in a way that nurtures us instead of tearing us down?
As with the immigrants who came to the U.S. and continue to do so, the Chinese who immigrate to their cities will reconnect and form associations, special interest groups, sporting teams, non-profit organizations, and find other ways to build their community.
Perhaps our greatest export will be helping emerging economies accelerate through struggles that took us dozens of years to resolve. Workplace struggles surrounding access to work, pay, safety, and the sharing of power will continue to affect today’s workplace, both here and abroad.