Foxconn is best known for being manufacturing partner for the likes of western tech outfits like Apple and HP - including the much-hyped new iPhone 5. Although whether any bits of the ‘5 are made at the factory in question is a big commercial secret, apparently.
The fight apparently broke out around 11pm on Sunday, in a dormitory adjacent to the factory. Although since it employs an eye-popping 79,000 workers, it’s really more of a company town. What seems to have begun as a scrap between a security guard and a worker rapidly escalated into full-scale rioting with damage to the factory itself and to shops and properties, and at least 40 people injured. Perhaps they were trying to get their hands on one of those new iPhones. Regional rivalries between groups of workers - mostly men in their early 20s - seem to have added to the tensions.
Foxconn is certainly no stranger to bad publicity over the way it treats its workers. In 2010 a spate of 13 suicides at another factory in Shenzen drew huge international criticism and focussed attention on the positively Victorian conditions under which much of today’s ‘must have’ gadgetry is actually produced. The firm has made concessions on hours and pay, and to be fair the spark for this incident does not appear to have been directly work related. But hours are still long and strict arbitrary rules, plus all those thousands of workers living cheek by jowl, is hardly a recipe for sweetness and harmony.
Of course it’s only thanks to the extraordinary productivity and efficiency of plants such as this that the likes of Apple can be confident of shifting 10m iPhones in a couple of months, and that we can all enjoy the benefits of a host of slick new tech tools. But this efficiency is achieved, in the case of Foxconn at least, through a regime of military-style discipline enforced by a standing army of 1,500 security guards at the Taiyuan facility alone. Exactly the kind of circumstances in which a minor incident can flare rapidly into something much more significant.
And Foxconn is by no means alone - China as a whole already spends more on domestic security than it does on its official military budget. A situation which is unlikely to change anytime soon as the authorities prepare for the forthcoming once-in-a-decade change of top leadership. This kind of flare-up is exactly what they fear most, and the world - including those all-important western customers - will be watching their response.
Meanwhile, Foxconn and its clients have another problem - the factory is now closed indefinitely, which means a huge chunk of lost production. No doubt some will be transferred to other factories, but the whole incident is going to cost Foxconn a great deal of money, we can be pretty sure of that. And in that realisation lies the best hope if change and reform for those Chinese workers - if it hits their bosses in the pocket, then things might improve.