By Jason Hung, LSE

Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn’s treatment of its workers has been under heavy scrutiny since 2010. In the first six months of that year, 10 workers committed suicide and another two attempted suicide at Foxconn’s Longhua factory in Shenzhen, known for its production and assembly of iPhones and other Apple gadgets. The workers were nongmingong, or rural–urban migrant workers, who make up a large proportion of Chinese factory workers.

The Shenzhen Kangning Hospital reported that 89 Foxconn workers regularly visited the hospital during the first six months of 2010. Emphasizing the severity of the suicide clusters, the Health and Family Planning Commission of Shenzhen municipality labelled the incident as the ‘SARS epidemic’ of the psychiatric field.

An increasing number of rural peasants have been migrating to work as nongmingong in urban China in recent decades. Many nongmingong anticipate that working in cities will help them realize upward socioeconomic mobility – higher income for themselves and their families, the acquisition of skills and education, and escape from a monotonous rural life.

But in reality they must abandon established social networks, endure long working hours and insecure employment, and tolerate overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.

At Foxconn factories in China, workers earn approximately US$32 for a 60-hour workweek in addition to receiving company-provided dormitory housing and meals. But most dorms are overcrowded and many factory workers work a seven-day week. In comparison, Foxconn workers in Brazil earn as much as US$71.5 per week and an extra US$11.75 weekly food allowance – a monetary allowance that is not provided to Shenzhen-based workers.

Nongmingong also experience occupational discrimination compared to local urban workers. They often encounter restrictions on occupational mobility, lower earnings, higher unemployment risks, absences of sick pay and higher risks of arbitrary salary cuts.

This discrimination causes or exacerbates poor mental wellbeing among nongmingong. Poor living conditions, social isolation, loss of family contact, exploitation and the discrepancy between the expectation and the reality of working conditions in China’s cities are all positively associated with the level of mental strain, diagnosis of mood and mental disorders, and rates of self-harm among rural–urban migrants in China.

Nongmingong facing negative appraisal and social discrimination at work, including segregation and a lack of social support, on a routine basis score more poorly on self-reported psychometric tests. Higher degrees of social stress, acculturation stress and a lack of upward mobility opportunities have all been found to jeopardize migrant workers’ mental wellbeing.

The relatively low socioeconomic status among nongmingong is also found to be associated with their relatively higher levels of perceived discrimination and lower mental health scores compared to local urban workers.

The cosmopolitanism, dynamism and income opportunities presented by urban life are all factors driving rural dwellers to live and work in cities as nongmingong. Rural incomes are on average just under one-third of urban incomes.

But when nongmingong move to cities they are required to pay an expensive "temporary residency registration" fee. Alternatively, they can work as illegal migrant workers and risk facing further exploitation by employers. Both options create financial, occupational and mental health vulnerabilities among the migrant population.

When the Chinese government actively attracts foreign investment from overseas multinational corporations such as Apple, it should consider extending the working benefits and rights enjoyed by urban workers to their nongmingong counterparts. Otherwise, the challenges that nongmingong face discourage their workplace efficiency and potentially compromise national economic growth.

Prompt governmental intervention will help to maintain the occupational and mental wellbeing of nongmingongand keep their urban dreams alive.

Jason Hung is a Masters of Science in Sociology student at the London School of Economics.

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