Dying for an iPhone: The Labour Struggle of China’s New Working Class

Jenny Chan


The presented sociological research analyses the ways in which the integration of the electronics manufacturing industry in global supply chains has intensified labour conflicts and class antagonism. The Taiwanese transnational corporation Foxconn Technology Group holds more than 50 percent of market share in global electronics manufacturing. Its 1.4 million employees in China far exceed its combined workforce in 28 other countries that comprise its global empire.

I assess the conditions of a new generation of Chinese workers on the basis of the intertwined policies and practices of Foxconn, international brands (notably Apple), and the local government, as well as the diverse forms of collective actions workers deploy to defend their rights and interests. Within the tight delivery deadlines, some Foxconn workers leveraged their power to disrupt production to demand higher pay and better conditions. While all of these labour struggles were short-lived and limited in scope to a single factory, protestors exposed the injustice of “iSlavery,” garnering wide media attention and civil society support.

Contradictions of state-labour-capital relations, however, remain sharp. In the authoritarian regime, notwithstanding the resilience of the Chinese state in the face of sustained popular unrest over the last two decades, my ethnographic study highlights the unstable nature of precarious labour in its hundreds of millions.

The published audio is a recording of a talk in the University of Westminster's CAMRI Research Seminar on October 1, 2014, see also http://www.westminster.ac.uk/camri/ and http://www.westminster.ac.uk/camri/research-seminars

An article related to this talk has been published open access in the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus:


Jenny Chan was Chief Coordinator of SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior) between 2006 and 2009. Educated at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong, she went on to pursue her doctorate in sociology and labour studies as a Reid Research Scholar at University of London. She was awarded the Great Britain-China Educational Trust for dissertation writing (PhD diss. 2014).

In September 2014 she joined the University of Oxford as Departmental Lecturer in Contemporary Chinese Studies, the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies. Her recent articles have appeared in Current Sociology, Modern China, The Asia-Pacific Journal, The South Atlantic Quarterly, Global Labour Journal, New Labor Forum, Labor Notes, New Internationalist and New Technology, Work and Employment.



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