High stress, high security: the price of an iPhone made in China
Foxconn is famous for two things: making Apple products and having unhappy staff. A riot at one of its Chinese factories this week was the latest evidence of worker discontent. What goes on behind the doors?
XIAO MA, A 21-year-old from Shanxi working the night shift at Foxconn in Taiyuan, watched last weekend as a row between a young woman working at the factory and a security guard escalated into a full-scale riot.
Dormitory windows were smashed, vehicles burned and thousands of armed police called in as still more people came to join the melee. Dozens were taken to hospital for treatment.
“It was massive. The anger is accumulating here. It’s getting worse,” says Ma. He is hunkered down near a police box across the road from one of the southern gates of the vast facility, which employs 79,000 people. Nearly a million people work for Foxconn in China.
“We are constantly insulted by the leaders of our work units, and we are always being shouted at. The security guards are constantly abusing us,” says Ma, smoking quickly as we speak.
His friend, who gives his surname as Li and is also 21, says what struck him about the riot was the way things escalated so quickly. “Her workmates stepped in to protect her, then more and more came in to help, and it all got very crazy,” he says.
The riot was a big setback for Foxconn, the flagship unit of the Hon Hai group, owned by the Taiwanese tycoon Terry Gou, which has been working flat out to meet increased orders for the iPhone 5.
Two years ago, Foxconn, the world’s largest maker of computer components, was roundly criticised about working conditions after a string of 13 suicides by employees at the company’s plants in southern China.
Foxconn’s close links with Apple, probably the highest-profile company in the world, has been a headache for the company, which is based in California. The chief executive, Tim Cook, visited an iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, in Henan province, last March to shore up the PR fallout.
The suicides in 2010 were blamed on tough working conditions, prompting calls for better treatment of staff. Foxconn was forced to increase wages and to construct safety nets on the roofs of the factory buildings to stop people jumping off.
Since then there has been a succession of incidents: poor performances in labour audits and regular accusations that Apple’s vast profits are being made at the expense of young Chinese workers.
Foxconn employs more than 1.2 million workers in 18 countries, including Brazil, Taiwan, Vietnam and Mexico, although most work in China: in the southern city of Shenzhen, in Chengdu in the west and in Zhengzhou in central China.
It’s hard to overstate how big Foxconn is. There is a very good chance that you have used something with a Foxconn component in it at some point today. As well as making iPads and iPhones, it makes PlayStations for Sony, the Nintendo Wii, PCs for HP and Dell, and equipment for Microsoft and Cisco Systems.
The sign outside the main entrance to the Foxconn plant says: “We are hiring security guards.” That’s hardly surprising, as many of the plant’s security staff were fired after last weekend’s riots. “The security guards are a menace. People don’t want to work for Foxconn because the wages are not so good and the guards are very bad,” says one young woman who is wearing a Foxconn polo shirt and eating noodles.
There are very few middle-aged or older people around the plant. Everyone is young and here to make money quickly. It feels more like a high school or a university cafeteria, as groups of young men and women eat at long tables in a courtyard shopping mall, surrounded by fashion shops and hairdressing salons.