Foxconn Uniform Charlie Kilo

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Workers converse while assembling MP4 players

If you have been paying attention to technology news as of late, you may have heard that Foxconn, manufacturer of all iThings among others, has been having some issues with worker suicides which has brought to light the abysmal working conditions it subjects its employees to. 10 hour days, no in and out privileges, a KGB-like security force, production line rushing–the list goes on. Having just visited a few Shenzhen based factories and talked to various factory owners and operators, I can say with confidence that Foxconn is the exception, not the rule.

So much culture in one bear

My parents sent me to China for the summer to accomplish a number of goals: first of all, they want me to improve my Chinese before I ship off to college in the fall. Secondly (and more importantly in my opinion), I am here to learn about Chinese culture and how China works from an inside perspective. Visiting these factories falls into the latter category.

We in the States buy so much stuff that we don’t need, myself included, but we tend not to think about where it comes from. Sure it’s all “made in China,” but that tends to be where most people stop asking questions (again, myself included). The fact of the matter is, these gadgets we so often take for granted, are made by people like you and I who each have their own story to tell and it’s important to recognize this. After hearing about all the Foxconn suicides, I found myself feeling rather guilty about ignoring these people for so long. So I decided I needed to see for myself what life is really like for the people who make our consumeristic lifestyle possible. A few phone calls and emails later, I found myself in the heart of Shenzhen.

P-p-p-penthouse!

Before I talk about the factories, I’d like to take a minute to talk about Shenzhen itself. I had envisioned this polluted wasteland where rivers ran black, living conditions were terrible, and soot blocked out the sun. To my surprise, I was greeted by world-class shopping malls, tropical flower gardens aplenty, and luxury condominiums rising 35 stories into the clear, blue sky. Apparently, times are kind of hard though because the Ferrari dealership closed recently. Just kidding, it was replaced by a Rolls Royce dealer. It’s also a surprisingly cosmopolitan city with businessmen from all over China and the rest of the world constantly coming in and out for business. That said, the housing for factory workers offered a pretty stark contrast to the otherwise pleasant landscape. The family friend who was guiding me around town told me that it’s not uncommon for 5 or 6 workers to live in the same 1 bedroom apartment for the entirety of their employment.

The only truly scary part were the roads; not the roads themselves but the people who used them. Traffic signals and lane lines are taken more like a suggestion rather than law. Cars seemed to zig zag across highways and roads which were shared by foot traffic and bike/electric bike traffic (even though there are sidewalks). It was kind of like that scene from Shaun of the Dead where they’re dodging zombies in the Phillip’s Jaguar, except with hundreds of cars doing the same. It is not uncommon for cars drive straight through a red light without so much as a look left or right. Even police cars and fire trucks weren’t given preferential treatment despite having their lights flashing.

The view from the factory's window

The first factory I visited was an assembly plant where all the components come together to form a finished product. This factory occupied an entire floor of an unassuming-looking office-type structure and was sandwiched by similar factories above and below it while other, similar buildings were going up all around it. When inside, I observed that the lines ran at a reasonable pace; nothing like the horror stories out of Foxconn. The workers were even chatting and joking with each other while they worked. The ceiling fans kept the facilities at a reasonable temperature and the lines were well lit by a combination of sunlight and fluorescent bulbs aided by the all-white interior paint-job and linoleum floors. The labor was tedious but it wasn’t laborious and there were no security guards out to get people and no obvious safety violations. All in all, it didn’t seem like such a bad way to make a living. (On a side note, when I asked the owner what the hottest product is, he said e-book readers…)

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The second workshop I visited was a lot worse in terms of atmosphere, but that’s the nature of the job at hand. Assembling a product from already-made components is one thing, making the components is a whole other story. The component-factory I visited specialized in plastic casings for speakers, mp3 players, etc. The smell of melted plastic hung heavy throughout the factory which gave me a headache (which eventually got better after about 10 minutes of acclimatization). Although the smell was bad, the worst part about the factory was the noise. There were air guns going off every few seconds or so, and someone somewhere was always hammering away at something. This made work time chatter all but impossible. That said, there was nothing that I or anyone reasonable would consider to be unsuitable working conditions. Although there were a lot of opportunities for injury, precautionary measures were properly utilized to prevent them such as robotic arms for extracting injected casings from the heat, face masks and eye protection as needed, and pulleys on rails to help move the heavy tooling. The foremen were amiable people and showed great hospitality towards myself and their workers. The job these workers have is unpleasant but it is not the result of overbearing production quotas or apathetic management; it’s just an inherently unpleasant job but someone has to do it.

Worker mans a mold injector

Working conditions aside, Westerners often gripe about the quality of Chinese goods. While this might be true of Happy Meal toys, the same cannot be said lightly about its electronics. At the casing factory, the foreman showed us an example of a product he had made that he deemed to be of unacceptable quality. Some of the casings for this internet radio had hairline fractures in them (or so he claimed) so he offered to redo the batch at great discount. Upon close inspection under bright light, we were still unable to find the fractures but he insisted they were damaged and he would not be willing to sell them. There are motivational posters about quality posted on every wall and pillar of both factories and unlike in many American office posters, these meant what they said.

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Worker polishes steel mold to a mirror shine by hand

When I asked the factory owners what they thought it was like to be a worker, they both acknowledged that it’s not very rewarding and that most workers can only work one or two years before quitting, but it is a job that someone, somewhere needs to do and if not in China, there’s really nowhere else. Chinese people have an inherently strong work ethic and are good at following directions. More importantly, there are lots and lots of them so labor is cheap. No American would be willing to polish a steel mold to a mirror shine by hand and if they were, they definitely wouldn’t do it for cheap. That said, they agreed that China will most likely not be able to keep doing this forever and it remains to be seen who, if anyone could fill this role in the future. Americans get the best quality stuff for the cheapest prices because other people do the work we aren’t willing to do. Americans often complain about other countries taking our jobs, but I can all but guarantee that Americans wouldn’t be willing to do these jobs at American minimum wage, much less Chinese average wage (there is not minimum wage). For now, we should just be happy that there is someone to do these jobs so we can buy cheap stuff.

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10 Responses to “Foxconn Uniform Charlie Kilo”


  1. 1 Dylan July 15, 2010 at 4:08 am

    I am confused.

    Are the two factories you describe visiting Foxconn ones or not?

  2. 3 jcc July 15, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Welcome back to the motherland! It’s good for you to learn the real China instead of being brainwashed by all the white people who are jealous of the resurgence of the Chinese people.

  3. 4 Lynnie July 15, 2010 at 6:50 am

    Dear Michael

    Thank you for this interesting look into another culture. One that I am guessing by your name, is one part of you?

    This topic causes me great worry – am I contributing to someone else’s utter misery, or am I supporting someone who would otherwise have nothing?

    Recently I bought two bags from another continent altogether, $5 Australian each – and each had beautiful hand-embroidery on the side. I was worried, and still am, about how little those workers must have received for their incredibly beautiful work – and I am unsure really if we are ever given the true low-down when we visit places – what do you think? Could you have been flim-flammed a little, or do you think that what you saw was the real deal?

    No criticism implied – just an elderly woman worried about the world, you know?

    Lynnie

    • 5 brainalleakage July 15, 2010 at 6:59 am

      That’s about 60 yuan total which is decent money for them. Frankly, you probably paid like 2 or 3 times what a local what have paid for but then again, that money probably didn’t go to the embroiderers. I’ve wondered this myself but to be honest, I can’t give you a straight answer. All I can say is that from what I’ve gathered, most tech workers are treated decently.

  4. 6 sevyn July 15, 2010 at 7:25 am

    I can’t believe they let you in the building and take pictures too! Try and do that at Coke or Nike! How did you get permission? I’m so glad you did this to inform us. Good job! Any more adventures for us coming up?

  5. 7 DCW July 15, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Shouldn’t it be Foxconn UNICORN Charlie Kilo?
    Ha ha! Good post though!

  6. 9 Joe July 15, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Great article to a usually closed world. Many thanks. – I still worry about what I buy and how little the actual production worker gets paid. I think you are right when you say that if it wasn’t them producing the goods it would be a job for someone else. We live in a crazy sad world!

  7. 10 Philoutilitarian July 16, 2010 at 3:30 am

    In response to some of the comments .

    I am currently living in the heart of china’s Dongguan city, I have recently moved from Canada and have begun my own start up company in the consumer electronics industry.

    I have also spent a great deal of my life working in Canadian industry, from sweeping shop floors to managing various types of factories large and small.

    I have had the opportunity of visiting many different factories from Shenzhen to Shandong, and i learning to adapt and understand the way of the locals as much as the mindset of big business in a very intimate and up close manner.

    Firstly as mentioned in one of the comments, the Hong kong way of business and the mainland way are quite different, one promotes fairness efficiency, and a more Utopian school of thought, as the other is simply money driven, the same as any other industrialized country Really. There are literally thousands factories and many different types of suppliers to choose from. all of them strive to grow and become more like us every day. If only they knew..

    Shenzhen is really the forefront of this generation of development. Not quite sweat shops, not quite Western. really a mixed culture and a window to the future of china.

    The events at Foxconn were tragic, and a very powerful message to all . And I truly believe that this could have been prevented with a little accountability on behalf of the all those involved. The responsibility and the blame is ours to share.

    The system is broken and changes need to be made on all levels. from the consumer to the CEO’s. When you support large Chains, placing importance on price as opposed to quality, of product or the life that these products and companies breathe into all that they touch, then you too send a message.

    If you wish for fairness and equality, then you must take that into account in everything that you do. as what you buy. where you buy it and how you put you’re money and efforts to use, is ultimately what will make the difference.

    so take an interest in the whole, and not just the extremes. learn and educate yourselves to the workings of your local government, businesses, and education systems. as this is where it begins.

    When situations like this arise there is always a bigger picture, not one of right or wrong, but of consequence and action. No single story or point of view can portray the full picture.

    so ask questions, take an interest, and you will see it is much easier to make a change then you realize. our generation needs to get off of our asses and start taking charge of our own future.

    Think globally
    act locally.


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