A few months ago Sometimes Interesting featured Guiyu, the town in China where most of the electronic products in the world go for disposal. What about the origins of the electronics we buy? It’s probably not a surprise to hear they are also made in China, and sadly the working conditions for those who build ipods and ipads isn’t much better than those who take them apart. How about 8 workers sharing a dorm room and televisions only in common areas? A suicide rate so high the company installs netting on the side of buildings to prevent workers from jumping? Welcome to Shenzhen, China, where most of the world’s electronic components are created.
Foxconn is the largest private employer in China with nearly one million employees. What Foxconn does is provide labor and manufacturing to electronics companies around the world. Currently Foxconn builds components for Acer, Amazon, Asus, Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Nintendo, Nokia, Microsoft, Sony-Ericsson and Vizio. The largest client, however, is Apple. Foxconn is the company that builds nearly all of Apple’s products.
Over 400,000 workers labor tirelessly in the 520-acre Foxconn compound. All non-senior personnel live in dorms on the premises. Most rooms have 4 sets of bunk beds sleeping 8 to a room. Hallways remain dimly-lit to save energy and keep the temperature down. There aren’t many colors; everything is gray or white. Men’s living quarters are separated from the women’s, and if you want to watch TV the only televisions are in the common areas. There are military-style drills, verbal abuse from supervisors, and overtime is expected. In some cases workers were required to work 13 days in a row to fill large orders, sleeping on the factory floor for rest. One of those instances was just last year when the iphone supply shortage meant production had to ramp-up faster than expected. There is never warm water in the showers, and snacks are forbidden.
One worker, 19 year-old Ma Xiangqian, moved to Shenzhen looking for work. Growing up on a farm in the country didn’t present much opportunity, so Ma – like so many other rural Chinese – moved to the city in search for higher wages and a better quality of life. Several months into his employment, Ma had a falling out with his supervisor and was moved from the assembly line to cleaning toilets. This was a disgrace to Ma and he was embarrassed for his family. In early 2010, he decided to jump to his death from the top of the dormitory. Ma Xiangqian had worked 286 hours in the month before he died – 3 times the legal limit in China. And for all his trouble, Ma was earning $1 an hour.
Unfortunately there would be 12 other suicides in 2010. Another well-known case involves a worker who jumped to his death for misplacing a prototype iphone 4. Is the responsibility of such an item is worth a life? It might seem that way when you make one dollar an hour. For a period of time Foxconn was paying families of suicide victims $15,000 as settlements. Foxconn quickly stopped doing this as it led to numerous suicides of workers just hoping to help their families with settlement money.
The cycle is understandably too depressing for some. Foxconn’s answer to the suicide issue? Install nets along the second floor of the dormitories to prevent workers from jumping. A morbid approach, perhaps, but it has worked; suicides are down in 2011. Suicide isn’t the most popular solution to ending one’s experience at Foxconn, however: thousands quit every month and the turnover is extremely high.
These workers live their life like a clock: get up, go to work, go home, and go to sleep. Rinse and repeat. The best day of the month is the 10th: payday. Workers crowd the ATM’s around Foxconn to withdraw their monthly pay checks which average $130.
Perhaps the most interesting underlying point is the changes in attitudes toward working conditions by the newest generation in China. Gone are the days where it was deemed acceptable – in some cases even honorable – to have a job in a factory. Increased education and technological advancement means the latest generation is more aware of what is considered humane and fair. Today’s younger laborers have lower tolerances for extreme and inhumane working conditions. The dynamic of cheap labor in China is evolving; as China becomes a technologically advanced nation, wage demands will increase to keep pace with the quality of life of other advanced nations.
Companies like Foxconn are the last bastion of the old-guard’s labor policies in China. When workers in China kill themselves over the disappointment of losing an iphone, changes need to be made. The blame lies with Foxconn and their policies toward treatment of workers.
(Photos courtesy of Joel Johnson, Gizmodo, and the Associated Press)