Apple Economy

A look inside a Foxconn factory

Rob Schmitz Apr 5, 2012

Sarah Gardner: Foxconn, that mammoth Chinese company that builds Apple’s iPads and iPhones, says it’s got a big pay raise planned for its workers in Taiwan — that’s about 10,000 employees. In mainland China, Foxconn’s also been under pressure from labor activists to raise wages and investigate charges of unsafe working conditions. That’s one million employees there.

Our China bureau chief Rob Schmitz has been following this story closely and this week he was given rare access to one of Foxconn’s factories. He joins us now from Shanghai. Hi Rob.

Rob Schmitz: Hey Sarah.

Gardner: Rob, you were recently invited to tour one of the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, right?

Schmitz: Right.

Gardner: Did management give you unlimited access and what did you see?

Schmitz: Both Foxconn and Apple, who both invited me, gave me unfettered access. I had really rare access to see an Apple production line. I saw the iPad line, and seeing the iPad and seeing it with its guts hanging out, on the assembly line — it was pretty amazing.

Gardner: Now I understand that you spent a couple of days with workers outside of the gates before you went into the factory. What did the workers tell you?

Schmitz: First off, workers at this particular factory had been promised a raise that was supposed to take effect in March. For most workers I spoke to, this actually didn’t happen. So many workers were really upset about that. But at the same time, most workers had a generally positive attitude about working at Foxconn. Nearly all of these workers come from rural China. They’re the sons and daughters of Chinese farmers and they live on less than a few dollars a day back home.

Gardner: Did you get the sense that they know that they are at the center of a very big story in the U.S.? You know, they’re in the headlines here.

Schmitz: This was a surprise to most of the workers I talked to and this was something I asked the dozens of workers I spoke to. I read some of the stories that we’ve seen in the press in the United States. A lot of them either snickered or rolled their eyes about what I was telling them. The general message seemed to be: ‘Well, I’ve never seen an underage worker in here and I’ve never seen an explosion. I generally feel safe.’ But they did have complaints. Many of them had really tough relationships with their immediate supervisor. Many of them felt that these supervisors sort of played favorites sometimes and unfairly punished workers for not meeting quotas.

Gardner: Yeah. And I saw some of the video that you shot inside the factory. I have to admit the inside of the factory looked a lot sleeker, and frankly nicer, than I expected. What was it like in person and were you surprised by anything?

Schmitz: This factory is one of the biggest factories in the world. It has 240,000 workers inside. It’s the size of a medium-sized American city. So it not only has factory buildings, but it also has shopping centers and dorm buildings and basketball courts and swimming pools and things like that. It sort of looks like a college campus and that’s because most of the workers are between 18-25 year old. It had the feel kind of like a college campus, except it was a factory.

Gardner: Finally, I’m just wondering when you were watching these workers on the assembly line, what was your impression of the quality of that work? What kind of jobs those are for these people?

Schmitz: Well I think they’re very boring, mundane, and repetitive jobs. However, a lot of the things that we’ve heard in the press — that they sit on chairs that don’t have backs to them or they’re standing up — that’s not true. At least at this factory, all the chairs had backs on them. The workers seemed like they were in a comfortable position when they were doing this work. It’s just that the repetitive motion of doing this work all day seemed to be — if you’re doing this 8, 10 hours a day, I certainly wouldn’t want to be doing this work. And the workers I talked to, their plans aren’t to do this for the rest of their lives. They’re doing this to make money so that that they can send it back home.

Gardner: Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China bureau chief. Rob, thanks a lot.

Schmitz: Thanks Sarah.

Gardner: And make sure to tune in next week, Rob will give us more details about that Foxconn factory and what workers told him about their lives there. He’ll be on Marketplace and the Marketplace Morning Report. Meantime, Rob’s blogging about it — check it out.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.