High stress, high security: the price of an iPhone made in China
Eating a bowl of the local speciality, cat’s ear noodles, so called because they are shaped like cat’s ears, Xiao Peng – “Xiao” means “Little” and is a common nickname – who is from Shanxi province, says he is working on components for the iPhone 5, and that it has been very busy lately, trying to meet orders. “Salaries are not rising fast. My basic wage is 2,100 yuan [€258]. But I’ve been here for more than two years. It’s difficult to get workers, so the management pays more,” says Peng.
Workers who were brought here from Foxconn in Shandong were promised 1,000 yuan (€123) each as a subsidy, which they had not yet received, and that also led to resentment.
Like most people we speak to, Peng is satisfied with the working conditions, except for the militaristic approach to discipline and the overzealous security guards. His monthly wage, once he does a couple of hours of overtime a day, is 3,000 yuan (€368), which is respectable enough.
His colleague says the new workers are starting on a basic wage of 1,800 yuan (€221), and that angers people who have been here longer. “I’m satisfied with the work, but that kind of thing is unfair,” he says.
They say there are serious tensions within the factory between local employees from Shanxi province and those from other provinces, chiefly Shandong.
Fewer coal trucks are on the roads around Taiyuan, a sure sign that the economy is cooling. But labour is still short, as evidenced by the rows of young men sitting at desks on the street, shouting out at passing jobseekers, trying to lure workers.
One sign says: “Even if you have tattoos and scars, we will find you a job”, and the recruiters offer 400 yuan (€49) for every person you find to work.
In 2008, China enacted a law that means every worker is entitled to an employment contract. However, millions of workers sign up with employment agencies, which are mostly recruiters such as the young men sitting at their desks outside Foxconn. Anyone who signs up with an agency or a recruiter does not get the same pay and benefits as regular workers. The government has said it will try to stop their activities, but they are still operating in plain sight.
One young woman is looking for work for herself and her four friends, and the recruiter tries to convince her to sign with him.
“We want to work in the same workshop together,” she insists. “You can do that, but I can’t guarantee you a dorm together,” he says. “It’s okay, we’ll be getting our own place,” she said.
One man who has just signed up is Lin Fang, a 20-year-old farmer from Shanxi. “I was earning 2,000 yuan [€245] as a farmer, but I can earn more here, once you factor in some overtime,” he says.
There have been online calls for trade unions to be set up to protect workers’ rights, but these are unlikely to bear fruit. Foxconn has factories all over, and local governments are not gong to risk antagonising the company, which seems able to transfer manufacturing capabilities around China, and the world, very quickly.
As well as cheap labour, Foxconn is manufacturing in China because it wants to escape meddlesome labour unions in Taiwan.
The China Labour Watch group in New York, which examines labour practices in factories around China, says the root causes of the riot need to be examined more closely.
According to the researcher Li Qiang, “Foxconn factories, which produce many of Apple’s products, have a history of maintaining militaristic management practices as well as putting an inordinate amount of stress on workers.”