Nearshoring -- the hottest new trend in global manufacturing -- is based on the use of low-paid labour which can be exploited because it lacks unions to fight for it, an exhaustive study into working practices at Foxconn suggests.
Nearshoring occurs when multinationals transfer their production from low-wage economies, such as China, to countries conveniently situated much nearer to their lucrative customer bases in developed economies.
"There is a dark heart to nearshoring, the latest major development in international capitalism," says Dr Rutvica Andrijasevic, a lecturer in employment studies at the University of Leicester's School of Management. Together with Dr Devi Sacchetto from University of Padua, Italy, Dr Andrijasevic led the research into conditions at three "nearshored" factories in Turkey and the Czech Republic run by the Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn, where the firm makes products primarily for Hawlett-Packard. "Companies such as Foxconn try to keep labour costs in nearshore locations down to the levels seen in mainland China, through minimum wage and flexible organization of production," she explains.
Dr Andrijasevic warns: "Much publicity has been given to poor working conditions in China, but the transfer of the 'sweatshop' model to nearshore locations in Europe is one of the terrible secrets of nearshoring."
The research, based on interviews with current and ex-Foxconn workers, trade union and government officials, and staff at non-governmental organisations, found that Foxconn pressured its workers to leave their trade unions in order to get the most out of workers at the least cost.
Gabriel, a sacked employee at one of the Czech factories, told the researchers that although he was fired, "those who agreed to leave the union carried on working."
In Turkey, Foxconn has forced workers to abandon trade unions. "The managers brought their notary to the factory and made them sign papers renouncing their membership," says Talat, a Foxconn worker. "Everybody signed because they'd have been sacked otherwise."
Low union power reduces the power of workers to fight for better working conditions in Foxconn's European factories. The work is "easy but very stressful," says Nissan, a worker in Turkey. She explains: "The managers only care about reaching targets. They treat us like robots and forget that we're human beings."
In order to examine Foxconn's working practices, Dr Andrijasevic and Dr Sacchetto are organising a conference entitled "Forms of Labour in Europe and China. The Case of Foxconn'. The conference will be held at the University of Padua in Italy on June 26-7 2014 and brings together international academics and practitioners to discuss global politics of labour.
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