Meet the Young Chinese Workers Who Made Your Computer

Foxconn's workers, in general, don't dislike their jobs significantly more so than workers anywhere else, Frederik Balfour cheerily reports in a cover story in "Bloomberg Businessweek".

Sep 13 2010, 6:31pm
Updated January 11, 2011: Listen to Mike Daisey deliver a version of his scathing, intense monologue about the manufacture of iPhones on the newest This American Life.

Chances are good that one of Foxconn's 900,000 workers made a good portion of your phone or your laptop in a factory in southern China. And considering the discount price you paid for it, it's no surprise that these workers are stretched thin.

The ability of Foxconn's hungry, enterprising CEO Terry Gou to squeeze profits out of his rapidly growing empire is why the Taiwanese company has become the go-to manufacturer and supplier for Dell, Apple, HP and many others. (Foxconn is spending $1 billion to build a new factory in Chongqing expressly for the purpose of making HP computers; to produce 130,000 iPhones a day, earlier this year it bought 1,000 metal fabrication machines typically reserved for prototyping, at a cost of $20,000 apiece.)

The cheap part of the process are the human machines, who can spend up to 12 hours a day painstakingly piecing together a circuit board or inspecting a plastic moulding, often for about $170 a month. Stress is prevalent, depression is rampant, and it's easy for workers to get lost in the (iPod) shuffle. Since the start of this year, 11 employees have committed suicide by jumping to their deaths.

Foxconn erected nets around each of the dormitories at their sprawling Shenzhen campus to catch falling workers. But the company has also redoubled its efforts to provide mental counseling to employees (there's a new program called "Campus Loving Heart"), and has announced raises of 30 percent, with more promised. The company is already known for paying workers for overtime and on schedule, a rarity in the heady world of Chinese factory labor. (Reportedly, Guo also hired an exorcist to aid the company.)

And Foxconn's workers, in general, don't dislike their jobs significantly more so than workers anywhere else, Frederik Balfour cheerily reports in a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek. "Labor watchdogs give Foxconn credit for exceeding the norms," and workers are there "because they want to make money as quickly as possible. Some want cash to buy the things they make. Others want to become entrepreneurs. None of the workers was upset about having to work overtime. To the contrary, the availability of overtime hours was a big attraction." The piece offers a handful of workers' accounts of their life at the Shenzhen factory, which employs 130,000 people:

Li Caihe, a 19-year-old from Gansu province, works a 12-hour shift attaching nine parts to the motherboard of a Nokia N90 handset. "It takes so much concentration, it was very stressful at first," she says. "I know I can go to a counselor, but I don't think it will help. I'm pretty adaptable, and I can cope. When I speak to my parents, I try to sound happy. I don't speak about my stress." Li shares a dorm room with seven other girls and plans to stay on for another year. After that she hopes to open a small business back home, a beauty salon perhaps.

A 23-year-old man who gave his name only as Cheng spray-paints plastic sheets that are then molded into handset covers. He says conditions are much better than at his three previous employers, though he did take part in a one-day strike of 70 people in May that was organized by his department to protest exposure to toxic fumes. They wanted better protection than the paper masks they continue to use. He was skeptical about morale-boosting exercises like the rally in August. "Everyone is happy when they are playing," he says. "After this event, people who are depressed will get depressed again. It's all superficial."

Guo Yan Bing, a 25-year-old from Henan province who works in logistics, spoke while having his eyebrows shaped with a razor on his day off. He lives off-campus with his fiancée in a one-room apartment that costs $44 per month, exactly the amount they receive from Foxconn as a rental subsidy. "This factory is too big," he says. "Low-level and mid-level management aren't educated, and they aren't nice to people. I blame Gou for this. It's always about the boss trying to squeeze money."

Li Xiaofeng, a 20-year-old from a farm in Hunan province, joined Foxconn in May 2009 to work on an HP color printer assembly line at the Longhua campus. Her generation, she says, is far less accepting of long hours, low pay, and verbally abusive managers. "Youth, especially those born after 1990, have a lot more enthusiasm and passion but are easily depressed once they meet obstacles," explains Li. "We are less able to endure suffering." She complains about the cockroaches in her dorm and how she couldn't shower for three days after the water had been turned off recently.

Businessweek emphasizes it was allowed to speak freely to the workers, without supervisors present. It was also given unprecedented access to Guo and all of Foxconn's Shenzhen campus, on the recommendation of the company's new PR managers, Madison Avenue powerhouse Burson-Marstellar.

No surprise then that the article isn't an investigation; it's a success story, full of sanguine gems like this: "The public nature of Foxconn's labor problems could end up benefiting the company, enabling it to pass on the costs of its new worker-friendly initiatives. The raises will cut earnings per share by about 5 percent this year and by 12 percent in 2011, according to Daiwa Securities in Taipei. Yet all it would take is a 1 percent increase in the price of most finished products—$4 more for a 64-gig iPod touch, for example—to offset the added labor costs. Given the awful spectacle of the suicide epidemic, who's going to complain?"

Even if Foxconn isn't able to pass off costs to its Western customers, the company isn't slowing down. Foxconn is eyeing 10,000 Chinese retail stores to sell to increasingly affluent domestic consumers, and is planning additional production in the U.S., in addition to the 1,000-strong workforce it already employs at a Houston plant. "But I worry America has too many lawyers. I don't want to spend time having people sue me every day," says Guo.

As the company pushes local governments to take on more responsibility for its own workforce (by building housing and stronger social safety nets), Foxconn is helping to ensure that a worker's journey from factory floor to white-collar life will take not generations, but only "a few years."

The company's executives joke about another future, reports the Businessweek piece: "In 20 years, there will be only two companies. Everything will be made by Foxconn and sold by Wal-Mart."