Sunday, June 18, 2017

iPhone slavery

 “This factory area is legally established with state approval. Unauthorised trespassing is prohibited. Offenders will be sent to police for prosecution!”

 Foxconn’s enormous Longhua plant is a major manufacturer of Apple products. It might be the best-known factory in the world; it might also might be among the most secretive and sealed-off. Security guards man each of the entry points. Employees can’t get in without swiping an ID card; drivers entering with delivery trucks are subject to fingerprint scans. A Reuters journalist was once dragged out of a car and beaten for taking photos from outside the factory walls. 

The vast majority of plants that produce the iPhone’s component parts and carry out the device’s final assembly are based  in the Chinese People’s Republic, where low labour costs and a massive, highly skilled workforce have made the nation the ideal place to manufacture iPhones (and just about every other gadget).

 The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that as of 2009 there were 99 million factory workers in China – have helped the nation become the world’s second largest economy. And since the first iPhone shipped, the company doing the lion’s share of the manufacturing is the Taiwanese Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, Ltd, better known by its trade name, Foxconn, which is the single largest employer in mainland China; there are 1.3 million people on its payroll. Worldwide, among corporations, only Walmart and McDonald’s employ more. As many people work for Foxconn as live in Estonia. Foxconn City is a nation-state governed entirely by a corporation and one that happened to be producing one of the most profitable products on the planet.  Steve Jobs said after news of the suicides broke. “Foxconn is not a sweatshop. It’s a factory – but my gosh, they have restaurants and movie theatres… but it’s a factory.

The iPhone is made at a number of different factories around China, but for years, as it became the bestselling product in the world, it was largely assembled at Foxconn’s 1.4 square-mile flagship plant, just outside Shenzhen. The sprawling factory was once home to an estimated 450,000 workers. Today, that number is believed to be smaller, but it remains one of the biggest such operations in the world. If you know of Foxconn, there’s a good chance it’s because you’ve heard of the suicides. In 2010, Longhua assembly-line workers began killing themselves. Worker after worker threw themselves off the towering dorm buildings, sometimes in broad daylight, in tragic displays of desperation – and in protest at the work conditions inside. There were 18 reported suicide attempts that year alone and 14 confirmed deaths. Twenty more workers were talked down by Foxconn officials. The epidemic caused a media sensation – suicides and sweatshop conditions in the House of iPhone. Suicide notes and survivors told of immense stress, long workdays and harsh managers who were prone to humiliate workers for mistakes, of unfair fines and unkept promises of benefits. Foxconn  had large nets installed outside many of the buildings to catch falling bodies. The company hired counsellors and workers were made to sign pledges stating they would not attempt to kill themselves.


“It’s not a good place for human beings,” says one of the young men, who goes by the name Xu. He’d worked in Longhua for about a year, until a couple of months ago, and he says the conditions inside are as bad as ever. “There is no improvement since the media coverage,” Xu says. The work is very high pressure and he and his colleagues regularly logged 12-hour shifts. Management is both aggressive and duplicitous, publicly scolding workers for being too slow and making them promises they don’t keep, he says. 
His friend, who worked at the factory for two years and chooses to stay anonymous, says he was promised double pay for overtime hours but got only regular pay. They paint a bleak picture of a high-pressure working environment where exploitation is routine and where depression and suicide have become normalised. The work is gruelling. “You have to have mental management,” says Xu, otherwise you can get scolded by bosses in front of your peers. Instead of discussing performance privately or face to face on the line, managers would stockpile complaints until later. “When the boss comes down to inspect the work,” Xu’s friend says, “if they find any problems, they won’t scold you then. They will scold you in front of everyone in a meeting later. It’s insulting and humiliating to people all the time,” his friend says. “Punish someone to make an example for everyone else. It’s systematic,” he adds. In certain cases, if a manager decides that a worker has made an especially costly mistake, the worker has to prepare a formal apology. “They must read a promise letter aloud – ‘I won’t make this mistake again’– to everyone.”
“It wouldn’t be Foxconn without people dying,” Xu says. “Every year people kill themselves. They take it as a normal thing. They call Foxconn a fox trap,” he says. “Because it tricks a lot of people.” He says Foxconn promised them free housing but then forced them to pay exorbitantly high bills for electricity and water. The current dorms sleep eight to a room and he says they used to be 12 to a room. But Foxconn would shirk social insurance and be late or fail to pay bonuses. And many workers sign contracts that subtract a hefty penalty from their pay if they quit before a three-month introductory period.
The vision of life inside an iPhone factory that emerged was varied. Some found the work tolerable; others were scathing in their criticisms; some had experienced the despair Foxconn was known for; still others had taken a job just to try to find a girlfriend. Most knew of the reports of poor conditions before joining, but they either needed the work or it didn’t bother them. Almost everywhere, people said the workforce was young and turnover was high. “Most employees last only a year,” was a common refrain. Perhaps that’s because the pace of work is widely agreed to be relentless, and the management culture is often described as cruel.
One worker said 1,700 iPhones passed through her hands every day; she was in charge of wiping a special polish on the display. That works out at about three screens a minute for 12 hours a day.
More meticulous work, like fastening chip boards and assembling back covers, was slower; these workers have a minute apiece for each iPhone. That’s still 600 to 700 iPhones a day. Failing to meet a quota or making a mistake can draw public condemnation from superiors. Workers are often expected to stay silent and may draw rebukes from their bosses for asking to use the restroom.
This culture of high-stress work, anxiety and humiliation contributes to widespread depression. Xu says there was another suicide a few months ago. He saw it himself. The man was a student who worked on the iPhone assembly line. “Somebody I knew, somebody I saw around the cafeteria,” he says. After being publicly scolded by a manager, he got into a quarrel. Company officials called the police, though the worker hadn’t been violent, just angry.
“He took it very personally,” Xu says, “and he couldn’t get through it.” Three days later, he jumped out of a ninth-storey window.
So why didn’t the incident get any media coverage? I ask. Xu and his friend look at each other and shrug. “Here someone dies, one day later the whole thing doesn’t exist,” his friend says. “You forget about it.”
In 2012, 150 workers gathered on a rooftop and threatened to jump. They were promised improvements and talked down by management; they had, essentially, wielded the threat of killing themselves as a bargaining tool. In 2016, a smaller group did it again. Just a month before we spoke, Xu says, seven or eight workers gathered on a rooftop and threatened to jump unless they were paid the wages they were due, which had apparently been withheld. Eventually, Xu says, Foxconn agreed to pay the wages and the workers were talked down.
When I ask the men if they would consider working at Foxconn again if the conditions improved, the response is equally blunt. “You can’t change anything,” Xu says. “It will never change.”

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