Last week consumers around world learned about the place our mobile phones, ipods, iPads and PlayStations are produced: In production facilities in China, owned by a Taiwanese company called Foxconn, which produces for brands such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and Dell. Consumers learned that Foxconn is the biggest producer of electronic goods, employs over 400.000 workers in the Shenzhen province, 11 workers committed suicide this year. Consumers also learned that the official annual suicide rate in China is 13 per 100,000 workers. And Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn recapitulates that his factory is below the official norm.

The rising protest inside China but also abroad which followed these tragic incidents, reveal a lot about the new dynamics in the fight for improvements of working conditions in Chinese factories: a dynamic which combines strong local critique, which does not leave the government untouched, with international outrage against the major customers.

Chinese media is reporting about this incident in a highly critical way. China daily, the biggest official English language newspaper, reported repeatedly about the Foxconn case. Journalists quote Wang Tongxin, the vice-chairman of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions, that suicides are a reaction to the “quasi-military management system” of Foxconn (source: China daily). The union demands better material benefits and mental care for employees from all companies and the police is investigating the incident. Meanwhile Foxconn is installing protection around windows to prevent works from jumping off the building, company officials brought in psychiatrists and Buddhist monks to talk to workers and let them sign a written confirmation that they are not going to commit suicide.

The incidence did not only produce spontaneous local protest. Written statements were posted in the internet with clear demands towards the national as well as local government and the factory itself. Signatories where scientists from mainland China and Hong Kong, who demand from the central government “to immediately end the model of development that has sacrificed people’s basic dignity”, call the local government to protect migrant workers’ housing, education, medical care and other social needs, and urge enterprises to increase migrant workers‘ pay and rights. (The Chinese original can be read here; the English translation is available here).

Labor advocates around the world are picking up their demands and are calling upon the major buying company Apple. They want a review on management methods, the formation of trade union through democratic elections as well as a change in purchasing practices which allow for a decent wage and less overtime work: Issues they have repeatedly raised over the last years towards all major companies sourcing their products from China.

This could turn into a public relation disaster for Apple, who just became the world’s largest technology company by market value, overtaking its greatest rival Microsoft. Apple is the main customer of Foxconn and also gets the lion’s share of criticism. Next week Apple planned to unveil its newest iPhone. Chief Executive Steve Jobs commented that “the factory is not a Sweatshop” and they will stage their own investigations about the suicides (Reuters). As Foxconn is a major supplier, it is unlikely to lose business.

Despite international attention, the major force for change will come from the Chinese workers themselves: Labor unrests are rapidly increasing and workers openly show their discontent with the high income inequality and the social injustice in the country: Workers are still on strike in Chinese Honda factories demanding higher wages; workers in Hyundai factories went on strike only shortly before that.

As a consequence, it is expected that wages will rise about 15-25 percent and local governments will raise the minimum wage as a response to the public pressure. On the long run, recent developments can contribute to collective bargaining on wage issues inside factories and strikes turning into a legitimate instrument for raising workers bargaining power. Yet, this still seems to be a long way to go as long as the state union and the government insist on “harmonious relations” between employers and employees.