Foxconn workers on the iPad assembly line sit behind a pile of new iPads.
Foxconn workers on the iPad assembly line sit behind a pile of new iPads. - 

Kai Ryssdal: That antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department is probably today's big crisis at Apple. But the company does have some longer-term concerns -- one of the biggest being its supply chain and accusations of worker abuse at factories in China that make iPhones and iPads.

Last week, Marketplace's Rob Schmitz actually got inside a Foxconn factory in the southern city of Shenzhen. He didn't meet anybody who was poisoned on the job. He didn't meet any 13-year-old workers. Nobody he talked to had been hurt in an explosion. He says the stories he heard were more about China than Apple.

In the first of two reports, Rob introduces us to the people behind our iPads.


Rob Schmitz: The most important thing Chen Xiaomin ever learned came from the place she was born, China’s countryside.

Chen Xiaomin: Money earned at home is earned with sweat. When I was a school girl, my mother worked on the farm. She sold beans so that I could go to school. Every year, I’d carry a 20-pound bag of rice to school just so I’d have something to eat.

Money earned at home is earned with sweat. So Chen left for Shenzhen -- home to one of the world’s largest electronics factories, the Longhua facility of Foxconn. There, she works and plays alongside 240,000 others.

Chen leans on a pool table, watching her boyfriend sink shot after shot. They just got off their shift. She’s an assembly line worker; her boyfriend’s a supervisor. Chen’s learned that the sweat that earns money in the countryside has been replaced by the stress of working on an assembly line. She starts to complain. Her boyfriend steps in and whispers to her: You shouldn't be saying this to a foreign journalist.

She ignores him.

Chen: I don't like this job at all. You don't learn anything. It’s useless and repetitive. When our supervisors put pressure on us, I feel like: "We're not machines." If we were machines, we could probably work as hard as they want us to, but we’re people.

It’s hard to feel like a person when you’re one of thousands of workers doing one simple task over and over for 10 hours a day. Every single part of an iPad is fastened by a worker in a motion that takes just seconds. When finished, the worker scans the iPad, eliciting a robotic "OK," and sends it down the line. That task will be repeated hundreds of times a day. It’s hard not to feel like a machine here. This is a factory, after all.

And Chen says it’s one of the best factories to work at in Shenzhen. Foxconn pays her on time, and the company doesn't always cheat you on overtime pay like other factories do. Chen sends all the money she can back home -- her father is dying, and her salary helps pay for treatment that’ll prolong his life.

Foxconn worker Zhang Yilin came from the same dismally poor background. But he studied hard, and became an engineer. Now he helps manage an iPad assembly line. I tell Zhang that Apple’s been in the headlines a lot this year in the U.S., that many Americans are worried about the factory conditions at Apple suppliers like Foxconn.

He looks puzzled.

Zhang Yilin: I’ve never been to the U.S. But I’ve seen what it’s like in movies, on television, in the newspapers. The place seems like heaven to me. But I have no idea if that’s true.

Working at a Chinese factory may seem like hell to Americans, says Zhang. But he says you have to put it in context, you have to understand just how poor parts of China are.

Zhang: The money you make working at a factory will help the next generation. It’ll help children get a better education. Most poor families can't afford medical care. The only option when you get really sick is to wait and die. But if you make money here and send it home, it can make all the difference.

It’s late afternoon. Tens of thousands of workers stream out of the factory gates. Xiong Yefei walks slower than the others. She’s two months pregnant. It’s been a long day -- her job is to clean iPad components with an alcohol solution; she says the fumes make her sick.

Xiong Yefei: A supervisor told me the fumes wouldn't harm the baby, but I'd still like to be transferred to another part of the line. When I asked my supervisors, they said no. And now they’re making me work the night shift.

Xiong starts to cry. She says another pregnant woman on her line asked for a transfer and got it, why couldn't she? The other woman, she says, was her supervisor.

I told a Foxconn executive about this. He offered to help Xiong. I told Xiong about this. She said she'd think about it, but she's worried she'll get in trouble. Most of the two dozen workers I spoke to had similar complaints about their supervisors.

Luo Guofen says his supervisor ignored his sick-leave request and forced him to work over the weekend.

Luo Guofen: They won't even let you take a day off; it’s very annoying. You have to beg! Last year a bunch of us asked for a holiday before Chinese New Year. We pleaded for days, but it was rejected. I left anyway and got in a lot of trouble.

Luo's been here for two years. He installs Wi-Fi components in hundreds of iPads each day, and makes $378 a month. The money he's made help put his brother through vocational school. And last year he sent $2,000 home. He says his parents are using the money to build an addition to their home. He’s proud of that. I ask him if I can visit his family back in his village. The next day I'm on a 12-hour bus ride headed for rural Jiangxi province.

Luo’s village is famous for growing some of the best oranges in China. When I arrive, his relatives are outside their cement-block homes, chopping orange tree branches for kindling. Sitting at the entrance to Luo’s house is a waist-high pile of bricks. Luo’s mother, Zheng Shuinu stands in front of it, hands on her hips.

I ask: So these are for the addition to the house? Yup, she says. You must be proud of your son for sending the money for all this. She smiles and waves me inside the house. She offers a correction to her son’s story.

Zheng Shuinu: To be honest, the money he sends home isn't very much. He spends so much on living expenses in that big city he lives in. Most of the money for fixing our home came from our savings, not his.

Zheng says a third of the young people from her village have left for factory towns like Shenzhen. She says it's a waste. She and her husband have urged their son to come home. Compared to their son's $2,000 in savings last year, they saved $10,000 farming oranges and doing odd jobs in the off-season. They're certain he’ll be able to save more money here. But he'll have to work hard, she says, and she wonders if he's ready for that.

Zheng: Whenever he starts a job, he gives up halfway through. That's why he never mastered any skills and that's why he left to work in a factory. Being a factory worker is useless. They just do the same thing over and over! They don't make much, and they don't save anything. It's time he came home.

Luo Guofen has agreed to come home this summer. He’s only been gone for two years, but in today’s China that’s a long time. In his absence, his hometown has prospered -- tour groups from wealthy urban areas now come here in the fall to buy oranges. The roads are now paved. There's even a four-star hotel. Farming is no longer the only option. And for Luo's family, money earned at home in China’s countryside no longer has to be earned with sweat.

In rural Jiangxi Province, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: You can see for yourself how iPads are made and what it looks like inside a Foxconn factory in a video Rob shot while he was reporting -- click here

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz