Despite precautions, another suicide at Foxconn
The workers here at Foxconn Jinan work 12 hours a day, six days a week. They’re denied health coverage, pensions and other benefits. There’s no overtime pay and minimal job security. Things are so bad that last week, barely six months after it opened, Foxconn Jinan saw its first worker suicide.
“And that’s why we don’t let the adjuncts read Camus anymore,” says factory manager Liu Kun. He’s referring to the adjunct professors who labor in Foxconn’s newest factory, grading papers and lecturing via Skype for philosophy courses back in the United States. Originally slated to produce LEDs, Foxconn Jinan was converted to a philosophy factory after American university administrators realized the potential of cheap Chinese labor.
Well, more like cheap “Chinese” labor. The overwhelming majority of the adjuncts here are US citizens. They packed their things, left their families and moved to China because “it was easier than finding a steady teaching job in America.” So says Lauren Carr, a 28 year-old fresh out of graduate school. “At least here, there’s no shortage of work to be done,” she adds, clearly one of the more optimistic workers at the site.
Carr works as she speaks, her nimble fingers rapidly grading the essays that pass before her on a conveyor belt. She reads the introductions—just the introductions. It’s more efficient to specialize like this, rather than have each adjunct try to fill all the roles that used to be considered part of teaching, let alone try to pursue teaching and research. Eliminating the traditional on-campus positions in favor of the philosophy factory allows Foxconn to process each student in a matter of minutes.
The whole situation seems puzzling at first. Why eliminate their previous positions just to rehire the adjuncts after they’ve moved to China? “We were already paying them the minimum wage,” explains one university vice president who wishes to remain anonymous. “Everyone’s thinking, ‘Why not outsource their jobs?’ The only problem was, there weren’t enough PhDs in cheap labor markets who were familiar with English-speaking academia. Then someone had an idea. Outsource the adjuncts themselves, rather than just their jobs. Brilliant. Everyone loved it. $5,000 bonus for that guy.”
Well, not everyone loved it. Brendan Ruiz spent eight years in a PhD program and four years underemployed as an adjunct professor before coming to Jinan when Foxconn opened its factory here six months ago. He threw himself to his death last Wednesday while on what he told his supervisor was a bathroom break. The solution? “More netting,” says Liu Kun. “They’re sitting down all day, every day. We didn’t think they could jump that far, given the usual muscle atrophy.”
Officially, Ruiz worked for the University of East Florida. Asked about the incident, university spokesman Chad Engle denied that the suicide had anything to do with how the school treats its adjuncts. “All of our faculty, whether tenure-track or not, are a valued part of this community,” Engle said from the UEF campus, 7,750 miles away in Daytona Beach.
Three days later, I’m visiting UEF, walking along with a group of prospective students and their parents as they’re given a tour. We see the dormitories, the administrative buildings, the libraries and all the rest. One of the prospective students speaks up. “Excuse me,” he says. “This is all very nice, but where is the university?”