The name “Foxconn” has been much maligned in the past year, and for, to some extent, good reason – workplace abuses have been well documented. Despite that, this video taken by marketplace.org Shanghai Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz gives another side of the story. It’s one that might force many to scale back the volume of their cries of alarm.
Schmitz’ video starts out with a look at the iPad assembly line, where Apple’s tablet is made by hand, albeit with some machine assistance. Machines help to put the motherboards together and test gyroscope functionality, but much of the work is done by hand. That work looks a lot like the boring, tedious brand of factory labor that you’ll find in just about any country with a factory.
Of course, tedious work isn’t what people are up in arms about when it comes to Foxconn. The factory, located in Shenzhen, first got a bad name when word got out about the spate of suicides, attempted suicides, and threats of suicide, along with abusively long working hours and low pay. There are no interviews in the video, but Schmitz recounts some interviews he had with Foxconn employees. Again, their words might force some to reconsider their positions on Foxconn.
The most striking part about the people who make up Foxconn’s labor force is how many of them there are – a staggering 240,000 people work at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, with hundreds more showing up at the gates every day to apply for positions. Most of those people are migrants from other parts of China who have left their homes to make money to send back to their families, and about 50,000 of them live in dormitories on-site. That means that the best description of this Foxconn facility isn’t to call it a factory – it’s more accurate to call it a city.
The residents of that city initially make about $14 a day working for Foxconn. A day often means 10 hours or more of labor. That’s low, but, as some employees whom Schmitz interviewed pointed out, it’s much higher than what they or their families make living in rural China, often off of subsistence farming. Some workers, when told about current the perception of Foxconn abroad, laughed about it, saying it’s not all that bad. The main complaints from employees were unfair treatment from supervisors, not getting paid properly for overtime, and being forced to work when sick. To a lesser extent, they are complaints not wholly unknown in the Western world.
The rosier picture of Foxconn is also supported by the fact that it tends to pay its workers on time – something many claim does not happen in other factories in China. Also, that “city” comes with amenities, like athletic fields, fast-food restaurants, banks, cafes, grocery stores, a library, and swimming pools.
Of course, the video is no reason to let Foxconn – or Apple – totally off the hook. The pay, though it represents a large step up from much of the poverty-stricken areas of rural China, is still incredibly low, even considering the far lower price of goods and services in China compared to the West. The mass suicide threat of 150 workers happened for a reason (a pay dispute involving raises promised and not delivered), and allegations of child labor have been substantiated. Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is that the Shenzhen facility is only one of 13 Foxconn factories in China, and is by far the largest and nicest. Most of the other factories lack the amenities of “Foxconn City,” and have much harsher working conditions.
Others interviewed in China’s rural areas claim that, by farming and performing odd jobs, they have been able to save more than those who work at Foxconn. Factory workers complain of the tedium, with most stating that their Foxconn stays will only last for a few years, while they save up money to help their families.
The report paints a very contradictory picture of Foxconn and China. So, is Foxconn a sickening example of labor exploitation or a misunderstood company that genuinely cares about its employees? The answer is clear from the report – there is no answer. The situation, like all other situations involving us humans, is infinitely complex and unclear. The best we can do is try to understand using the information presented to us, and Schmitz’ report does a terrific job of helping us to do that – by letting the people speak for themselves.