The chairman of the Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn, Terry Gou, referred to his workers as “animals” during an appearance at the Taipei City Zoo on Friday. The remark caused an uproar. He later apologized and said the media had distorted his comments.
Gou’s gaffe came at a bad time for Foxconn, which has been accused of maintaining sweatshop-like conditions in its factories and discriminating against employees who complain.
Early this year, 300 employees threatened to jump off the roof of a Foxconn factory in Wuhan if they were not given raises. In 2010, at least fourteen Foxconn workers committed suicide.
Instead of improving working conditions, Foxconn installed safety nets at many of its plants.
Yet the controversy has not dulled China’s appetite for Foxconn products, including Apple’s wildly popular iPhone 4S. On the morning of January 13th, thousands waited outside Apple’s flagship store in Beijing, eager to get their hands on the new phone. Many had been waiting all night. When the store announced it could not handle such a massive crowd and would not open its doors, a riot broke out. Angry customers hurled eggs at the store’s windows and fought police before being dispersed.
In response, Apple temporarily stopped selling the iPhone 4s in China.
Now, the story is starting to hit America’s mainstream media. On January 6th, This American Life aired “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” On January 16th, The Daily Show ran a segment called “Fear Factory.” Two days ago, the New York Times published a lengthy article on Apple’s decision to move its manufacturing operations from the US to China.
Foxconn produces around 40% of the world’s consumer electronic devices, including Apple’s iPad, the Amazon Kindle, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and many more. It’s an open question whether employees are better off in Foxconn’s factories than they would be in China’s grim rice paddies. But one thing is for sure: the animals of Taipei Zoo won’t be going on suicide watch anytime soon.