Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly sent 20-year-old reporter Liu Zhi Yi undercover in Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen, China. For 28 days, he experienced dreadful conditions that the factory's 400,000 employees endure, churning out iPods, iPads, and iPhones for Apple nonstop.
There's no doubt about it. The Foxconn suicides were caused by job stress. Within half a year, there have been nine suicides attempts with seven confirmed deaths at Foxconn's Shenzhen factory. In the last month, that number suddenly increased to 30 new suicide attempts, prompting the company to hire counselors and even Buddhist monks to free the souls of the suicidal from purgatory.
Foxconn is one of Apple's main manufacturer contractors. Thousands of Mac minis, iPods, iPhones and iPads are assembled daily in the Shenzhen factory, which runs 24/7. The company also produces some products for Intel, Dell, and HP, among others.
After the sixth suicide attempt in April, Southern Weekly—described by The New York Times as China's most influential liberal newspaper—sent a young reporter to sneak into the factory as a worker. At the same time, they sent a senior reporter to talk with Foxconn's executives. Their mission: To discover what's really going on in that factory, and find out the true reasons behind the suicides.
During his 28 days of investigation, Liu Zhi Yi was shocked to discover how the factory workers live in a sort of indentured servitude. They work all day long, stopping only to quickly eat or to sleep. They repeat the same routine again and again except on public holidays. Liu surmised that for many workers, the only escape from this cycle was to end their life.
Liu, a graduate student, was chosen because of his young age, since the factory only hires workers in their twenties. He was hired without issue. He signed only one special document: An overtime working agreement that says the company is not responsible for their long hours of working. According to Liu, this voluntary agreement overrules Chinese state regulation.
Foxconn workers only smile on the 10th of every month. That's the day when they get their salaries. That day, the ATM machines inside the factory are crowded with workers. Their monthly salaries start at 900 Chinese Yuan—about $130.
The stress room at Foxconn.
Most of the workers had nothing to say about the popular Apple products they assemble. Most can't afford to own an Apple product. Their salaries can only buy them knockoff versions. While gadget aficionados worldwide discuss which iPhone they should buy, Foxconn workers debate the merits of differing knockoffs.
Tales from the factory
Liu had his most interesting chats with other workers during meals. Some told him that they envied workers who are sick. They get leave approvals and can get some rest. They also discussed about accidents in the factory: One worker got his finger cut-off during production. A few workers think that the machines are cursed. They believe it's dangerous for them to use the machines.
Another worker spoke about one of the favorite activities in the factory lines: He likes to drop stuff on the floor. Why? Workers spend achingly up to eight hours standing up, so they feel that squatting down to grab a fallen object is the most restful moment of their working day.
Workers call their warehouse trolleys their "BMWs". While pulling them around, stacked high with tons of goods, they imagine the real BMW they hope to one day own.
According to one worker, they can't live without these dreams. They dream of becoming rich one day. Some spend part of their salaries buying lottery tickets and betting on horse races.
There are other kind of dreams too. Liu says that some of them complain about their love lives. They just can't find lovers in that environment, so they have to find alternatives: In some internet cafes—hiding in restaurants outside the factory—young men can buy access to clandestine porn videos. However, the men say that the movies get boring after long periods of time.
Workers eat in the on-site cafeteria.
Many wouldn't talk of the suicides. Others joked about it. One of the problems may be the lack of communication and friendships between work colleagues. Many workers don't even know the names of the people working next to them. In fact, according to Southern Weekly, the workers find difficult to relate to each other because they are always wearing identical work uniforms and performing the same tasks everyday. They have no interesting topics to chat about because all they do is work. If an employee becomes too stressed, they often have no one with which to share their feelings or to approach for help solving their problems.
Click to viewPerhaps the 100 counselors hired by Foxconn will help. I wish they had movie theaters and shopping malls inside to help them relax. But, at the end, the most important thing is that Foxconn really needs to be more human and be concerned about the health—mental and physical—of their workers, instead of treating them like dogs.
Chris Chang originally posted about Liu Zhi Yi's Southern Weekly reports on M.I.C. Gadget, a site featuring life, gadgets, and subculture in China.