The hard life of a Chinese high-tech labour worker

Under the Christmas tree, some of us will hopefully find a great Iphone 4 32G, an amazing 9.7 inch Ipad 3G, a Dell netbook, a Sony PSP® or a Nokia N8 smartphone. On the user manual, it shall be written how to handle it but certainly not how it has been made. Today, La Vie French magazine publishes a long story (including side boxes here and here) about life at Foxconn, main Apple’s supplier. Sorry, it’s only in French but let me propose you my comment in English.


Despite tragic suicides (14 officially – one last November, yet much lower than in others fims like France Telecom but when it comes to very young people in such a guarded area, it raises questions) and several promises for pay rises, Foxconn is still compared by Hong-kong ngo Sacom, as a “labour camp”. How come?

So I went there in May and then back again lately, to check what really changed during this 6 months period of time. Salary is now high, better than any other factory around, but happiness is still not here, whatever swimming pool or tennis court you might have seen on tv, owing to Foxconn p.r.  Is it due to Foxconn’s military discipline (typically taiwanese, i have been told) ? to a rather hostile environnement (huge dorms, huge factory) that doesn’t match with young workers expectations?

Everyday, Xiao Li, 18 years old, wakes up at 6 in the morning in a room where she has be assigned by her manager, with 9 other people, coming from 9 different places. On 6h40, she leaves her room, walks down a long road and arrives at the South gate after a 20 minutes walk. She will buy noodles on her way, like every morning. If she eats at the canteen, she will waste time and sleep less. In this giant factory outside Shenzhen, Xiao Li and his 300 000 comrades get ready for a 13 hours a working day (excluding lunch break, including overtime), six days a week with a 10 minutes break every two hours. Six days a week is normal in China but it can easily turn to 7 days when sudden customers’ orders come up.

At her production assembly line, which has always been relying on human labour more than sophisticated machines for cost reasons, she is not allowed to speak, listen to music or even look at her comrades while trying to achieve the christmas production targets. Her mobile is confiscated every morning too but insults from managers, she says, have disappeared. Instead, they just ignore her, after all the bad publicity they got last spring when 13 Foxconn suicides hit the headlines which blamed the company for harsh management.

However, a noticeable improvement has been made after 30 glorious years of economic reforms in China: she is allowed to sit down while working. Well, it depends on her manager’s good mood.

Compared to the toxic bluejeans factories in Xintang or swimwear factory in Dongyuan, what is striking here  – although it is NOT child labour – is that all of the workers are 17, 18, 19 or in their early twenties.  Foxconn doesn’t want older people to live in this 320 000 people city.

The young foxconn workers are obedient, have almost no previous work experience and they don’t have a clue about what labor rights mean, according to Liu Kaiming, director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a labour right group in Shenzhen. They would never complain, in such an unfriendly environnement where security guards, like those bloodcurling fluorescent lamps, are everywhere: at the dorms, at the canteen, at the recruitement center or at the workshop.

Inside the factory, if you call the police number , you will have great chance to be transfered automatically to the guards phone number. As far as me and my cantonese interpreter were concerned, guards illegaly tried to check my passeport, her id card and even called the police when we asked them politely to call the Media department for us. For sure, Foxconn likes secrecy.

(I took this picture last May, when a mother who was sitting at the main gate, was taken by the police. Her son died but no police investigation has been made so far. She believed the guards had beaten her child to death)

These young workers are educated, are often the fruit of China’single child policy. They have moved from small towns in remote parts of China after their degree. They are the new generation of Mingong (=migrant workers) in China.

Their parents are farmers or migrant workers themselves, from poverty-stricken provinces like Henan, Hunan, Sichuan. But these families hope their children will send them back some precious money, to build a concrete home or to cover health expenses. However, none of these parents have any idea about how difficult is their child’s job, how harsh is the military discipline, how hard is it to socialize when you have no time for it and how big is the pressure provoked by higher productivity objectives.

Like many African migrants in my country, Foxconn kids only want their parents to believe they are successful. And the only thing that matters for these children is their salary, not even themselves.

Bigger pressure? As westerners say: no pain, no gain. During a 3 months trial period and owing to Taiwanese consultants, Foxconn workers’ productivity has been gradually risen. This little 17 years old girl with a red heart (see below) checks the quality of the expansive HP ink cartridges… 28 0000 a day (!), 40% more than last Summer. While working, she doesn’t have to think nor to open her eyes, she just has to breathe and let her fingers feel the cartridges as fast as possible.

Every single minute is now scientifically maximised. Because she has been trained for that and she has now much more value than any sophisticated machine in the eyes of Foxconn, she won’t be able to change position during her stay here. She will be doing the same movement for the next three years, 3 years being the average lenght for any worker in Foxconn, before they get worn out.

We also met Ling Hui Ping on the way to the factory. He told us he was on the Iphone assembly line. He is coming from Hunan, his parents are crop farmers. At 20h30, after listening politely to his managers comments and criticisms, after cleaning his workshop perimeter, it’s time for this 18 years old boy to rush to his dorm, alone. Because Foxconn city is so big, it can easily take half an hour to get back home. At 21h30, he will only enjoy one hour to empty his head and get a life: calling his family, taking a shower before his dorm lights are turned off. Outside,  famous brands like “Lining”, “Baleno”, “Nokia” have been inaugurating there shops for a few weeks and been playing electronic music like hell, in an attempt to attract workers and get the most out of their new purchasing power. Mc Donald is said to arrive soon. Tonight, our friend may be able to sleep, or not. He has one dream: to collect enough money and start a small business, in his home town. “Probably, a phone shop“.

On Internet, young Chinese people in the cities enjoy making fun of these mingong life style: they love flashy clothes, fluffy hairstyle, cheesy pop songs, romantic films. On their day off, they are fresh, smiling and positive. At first sight, you would never guess what they endure. Foxconn kids have been assigned to packed dorms with people from different shifts, differents workshops, different hometowns, giving them rare occasions to know each other.

(below: guards never say goodbye. They just check women’s bags as they leave the workshop after the night shift)

However, a friend at China Labour Bulletin recently told me that owing to the pay rise, it was actually the first time he could see a smile on Foxconn’s workers face during their day off.

He is right. Once a week, on their day off, owing to their bigger salary, workers are able to treat themselves and enjoy simple pleasures like a funny haircut or a good candy. They like showing up on the bridge upon Foxconn main gate which now looks like a catwalk. Some workers get spiritual and spend their only day off praying together, with the risk of being evangelized by some foolish priest . Some are left alone. But lots of them were willing to talk to us and describe their everyday life… some would mention face-losing punishments : when something is missing on the assembly line, one has to stand up during 6 hours, nose to the wall.

All right. Terry Gou, Foxconn CEO and Taiwanese billionaire, has delivered on his promise to increase salary at Longhua: workers now get 3200 yuans per month, including overtime. It’s a very good salary indeed, even better than the salary of graduate people in many cities. The strikes at Honda Foshan and the pressure from Shenzhen and Guangdong governements to prevent any threat to their sacred “Harmonious society” did help. But one have to take into account the sharp rise of food prices in China: +11.7% in November, +10.9% in October.

Fragile Foxcoon workers are supposed to be offered psychological support through a hotline phone number. 1/ the calls are not anonymous at all as you must give your name and the number of your workshop BEFORE telling about your problem. 2/Franz Kafka may laugh as these psychologists are simply other workmates who have been offered this unusual position overnight after a quick book training. This leads to unsolvable situations. One worker that we met in a shop said “2 months ago, I mentionned a difficulty to the hotline. The week after, my manager knew about it and said it was no longer his responsibility any more since i had decided to deal with that with the assistants. He has lost his trust in me“.

On the otherside, a new recruitement center has been built to hire workers for the new factories in Henan or Sichuan where salaries and production costs will be lower. If Foxconn doesn’t change its practices, local governements might eventually do something. Chengdu, which is going to welcome hundred thousands of workers for Foxconn new plant has promised it will reduce hukou disparities between migrants workers and local urban people, given them and their relatives a access to education and health care.

And in case any social protest happens, Foxconn will be able to rely on People’s Liberation Army’s support. The folks are setting up a small artillery regiment… just two blocks away from Longhua factory’s main gate. Merry Christmas !

Solutions

Some of you will think that it’s always better to have a job than nothing, that these young people will be helpful for their whole family, that it’s worse in Bengladesh, Philippines or in some western suburbs.  It’s a blog, it’s my opinion and i am seeing this from a different perspective. If i want to focus on Apple, it’s not for my glory but because i am using this brand which i appreciate very much, like more and more Chinese people here (I live in Beijing but i am always stunned to see the long queues at the Sanlitun village Apple store at 10 am, where a Iphone easily costs a 1 month salary).

Apple’s prices are very high (and similar whether you’re Chinese or American), its products are all the same whatever the market and yet, this successful and trendy brand fails to have a global staff strategy. But when it comes to cost cutting, Apple doesn’t mind offering third world treatments.

I can understand HP’s position since we all enjoy very cheap hp products (well, apart from cartridges) but for Apple, for all its fuss, its support from the media when the Ipad came out… no. We should make corporate social responsibilty a rule and force Steve Jobs to find a supplier who would give visible exemplary working conditions to its production team (not 80 to 100 hours a week). Big companies which build their image through innovation should also innovate in terms of labour practices. Steve Jobs… are you a pioneer or not? Here, we’re back to the old Industrial revolution…

(Iron bars on windows are part of Chinese cheap modern architecture to prevent theft. What is new since i first came last May are the extra steel wire (below), the nets and the fences on the roofs).

On day off, outside the dorms, Foxconn seems so far away.

Brands are now trying to attract Foxconn workers in front of their dormitories, after the 67% pay rises. In May, such events did not exist. These mingong make these phones too… but they won’t get a discount.

Here is a fake Foxconn job offer that proposes only 5 working days, no unpaid overtime and bigger  basic salary. When we call them they ask for a 500 rmb commission fee … only to bring you at the Foxconn job center.

Below: an unregistered home church on the first floor of a gloomy dormitory. The priest is Taiwanese and is traveling from one factory to another to “evangelize” people. In China, religious activities are under the control of the Chinese governement, obviously not here.

jordan pouille

Friends, these pictures are copyright.  Please email me first in case you are interested in using/buying them.

 

Here is my short video teaser with French subtitles, a short introduction of the La Vie story, that appears on their website You will note in the video how a underground home church looks like or that a 18 years old worker can make up to 3000 iphones a day. Not more, it’s only a teaser 😉

* the original title of my blog post was “Why I don’t want a Iphone for christmas” but i decided to change it on December 26th after receiving dozens of insults from Apple addicts. However, it is a personnal blog post, where i am free to express my opinion. I still believe Foxconn is definitely not a nice place for a Chinese educated teenagers to live and work. I have been working in China for 2 years and a half. Like ALL correspondents, I like traveling with an interpreter. No only when it comes to use cantonese or a dialect but because this person will help to establish friendship and confidence between me and the worker who has probably never met a “laowai” (= foreigner) before.
* 2015 January. I changed the headline again, from “For Foxconn workers, money doesn’t buy happiness” which didn’t really make sense to “The hard life of a Chinese high-tech labour worker”. Since this post, I went 3 times again to Foxconn, in Shenzhen, Chongqing and Chengdu. And explain in it a book called “Le Tigre et le Moucheron: sur les traces de Chinois indociles” (Nov. 2014 – Les Arènes)

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