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iPad maker Foxconn catches fire, claims no casualties

Just another troubled day for Chinese workers

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A dramatic fire that billowed black smoke from the roof of Chinese gadget-assembler Foxconn has been extinguished without casualties or interruption in service.

So reports Reuters, citing Foxconn officials who said that the fire, reported earlier today, broke out in electrical cables on the roof of one building. All was under now under control, they said – and the damage would be covered by insurance.

It's not known exactly what activities took place in the now top-toasted building in Shandong, eastern China, but the massive company assembles products for a host of international product-punters, including Apple, Sony, Nokia, and others.

Although Foxconn is well known for its work on, for example, Cupertinian handsets and fondleslabs, its arguably better known for its turbulent employee relations. Here's a sampling: an explosion in May that killed three; accusations of child labor, bribery, and unsafe working conditions; worker protests; alleged worker poisoning with industrial chemicals; violence to workers; the harrassment of reporters covering worker problems; and – perhaps most famously – a spate of employee suicides.

Those who follow the rapid rise of Chinese manufacturing are well aware that Foxconn is not alone in treating employees with a harshness that wouldn't be tolerated in Western industrial settings. In fact, as a large corporation, it's likely that Foxconn's treatment of its employees is more even-handed than smaller, less-examined manufacturing entities, especially those in the 'Wild West' atmosphere outside of major industrial zones.

That said, Tuesday's fire coupled with the May explosion and other problems at Foxconn's sprawling facilities underscore the difficulties faced by a workforce consisting largely of disempowered migrants from rural China.

But fear not, Foxconn is working on one solution to the plight of workers without rights or a voice in management decisions: replace them with robots. ®

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