What Saturday Night Live got right and wrong about China’s Foxconn workers

October 15, 2012

This weekend’s Saturday Night Live included a great skit about the workers at Foxconn’s infamous factories in China, which produce Apple products, among many others. The Taiwanese-owned Foxconn plants have been the target of disturbing investigations into labor and human rights abuses; protesting Chinese workers shut down a massive Foxconn facility in northern China just three weeks ago.

The SNL skit opens with some tech bloggers complaining about the latest iPhone’s faults. Three Chinese Foxconn workers then confront them, shaming and mocking the whiney Americans with stories of their suffering. U.S.-based China watcher Ray Kwong called it “delightfully racist.” My favorite part is the look on Kenan Thompson’s face (he plays a tech blogger) when the factory workers come out and he suddenly sees the global context of his smartphone.

I sent the skit to the folks at China Labor Watch, a Hong Kong-based NGO that conducted undercover investigations at Foxconn plants as part of their research into Chinese labor conditions.

“It is a work of art, to start with,” China Labor Watch founder Li Qiang wrote in an e-mail. But he said that SNL’s portrayal of how the workers view Americans was inaccurate. The skit shows them fake-crying to mock the tech bloggers, scorning American softness and self-centeredness. Li says the workers don’t tend to blame Americans for factory conditions, and often share their love of Apple gadgets. “Chinese workers may not be resentful to Americans, as the consumption demand from America did bring them working opportunities.”

Kevin Slaten, a New York-based spokesman for China Labor Watch who’s also investigated some factories firsthand, agreed. “From my personal experience, I have very rarely heard workers refer to Americans in this way,” he said of SNL’s angry Chinese characters. “Chinese workers who pay any attention to America believe that it is a prosperous, advanced society,” he wrote. “Many workers have also told me directly that they admire America's civil and democratic rights. This should be of no surprise coming from a group that is often abused with no official representative organization to defend them.”

American consumers can play a role in addressing Chinese labor conditions, but activists tend to emphasize Americans’ opportunity to press for reform, rather than shaming them for buying Chinese-made tech products.

“The workers may actually want American consumers to do something like demanding Apple to change the working conditions in the factories in China,” Li explained. Slaten said that, if he could have added one thing to the skit, it would have been some Foxconn or Apple representatives. “They are directly responsible for worker treatment and are inseparable from the larger issue,” he said. “That would certainly be one way to let the workers take their frustrations out -- though probably not the most constructive way.”

Li said that he would added something about how “eager” the workers themselves are to get an iPhone, for which some will save up for months. “The workers do not resent the iPhone or iPhone consumers, but they are resentful to the working conditions and system problems in the supply chain.”

There are, of course, some factual inaccuracies in the skit. Slaten was hesitant to criticize SNL but acknowledged that “workers don't sleep 100 to a room. Women don't have to ‘wait in line 21 days’ for baby formula. Workers aren't going to store their severed hands in bags until they can get the money together for surgery,” though services are indeed poor and injuries frequent. He added, “The accents were from southern China--i.e., Hong Kong--as opposed to central China, from which most migrant workers originate.” I was just impressed they managed to keep their accents consistently Chinese.

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