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On Contact: Dying for an iPhone

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to Professor Jenny Chan about the people in China who make iPhones, iPads and Kindles, driving the huge profits of two of the world’s most powerful companies – Foxconn, the world’s largest provider of electronics manufacturing services, and Apple with its $2 trillion market value.

Jenny Chan, along with Mark Selden and Pun Ngai, did extensive field research for almost a decade to produce their book, ‘Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and The Lives of China’s Workers’. What they show is that workers in China earn a fraction of what unionized workers in the United States earn. They have no job protection, are forced to work punishing hours of overtime, as much as 130 hours of overtime a month, live under constant surveillance, are severely disciplined for minor infractions and must meet punishing quotas that leave them physically drained and sometimes injured and sick. They are separated from their families, including their children, and housed in overcrowded dormitories next to the factories that have round-the-clock production. There is little protection from chemicals and toxins, such as aluminum dust. Factories, in addition to this abuse, exploit student interns from vocation schools, paying them even lower salaries than ordinary workers. Their efforts to organize and protest are usually violently crushed, with workers being beaten, jailed and fired. There has been a spate of worker suicides, forcing factories to put up barriers and nets.

YouTube channel: On Contact

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today we discuss the working conditions of the Chinese laborers that put together products such the iPhone with Professor Jenny Chan.

JC: So-called industrial accidents or it is manmade is almost a month.  Day and night on the job, we are there onsite in Chengdu City in Sichuan Province.  And finally, it’s the aluminum dust explosion when human beings are polishing the iPads.  The corners are so smooth and they are not made by machines.  They are polished by human hands.  Someone just turned on the lights and it triggered the explosion and fire.  Four people died onsite and injured dozens more.

CH: There was a recent US manufacturer ship jobs to China.  Workers in China are in a fraction of what unionized workers in the United States aren’t.  They have no job protection, are forced to work punishing hours of overtime as much as a hundred and thirty hours of overtime a month, live under constant surveillance, are severely disciplined for minor infractions and must meet punishing quotas that leave them physically drained and sometimes injured and sick.  And if they are unable to work because of job-related injuries or illnesses, they often are not paid sick leave.  They are separated from their families, including their children, and housed in overcrowded dormitories next to factories that have round-the-clock production.  There is little protection from chemicals and toxins such as aluminum dust.  Factories, in addition to this abuse, exploit student interns from vocational schools, paying them even lower salaries than ordinary workers.  The efforts by workers to organize and protest are usually violently crushed with workers being beaten, jailed, and fired.  There has been a state of worker suicides, forcing factories to put up barriers and nets.  Jenny Chan, Mark Selden, Pun Ngai did extensive field research for almost a decade to produce their book, “Dying for an iPhone.”  They tell the story of the people who make iPhone, iPads, and Kindles driving the huge profits of the two of the world’s most powerful companies.  Foxconn, the world’s largest provider or electronics manufacturing services and Apple with $2,000,000,000,000 in market value and the implications for global consumers.  Joining me to discuss “Dying for an iPhone, Apple, Foxconn, and The Lives of China’s Workers” is Professor Jenny Chan.  So, I said before we went on, Jenny, as a former investigative journalist, I thought you did tremendous work.  I know it took you a decade to put it together.  I want to just begin, as you do very well in the book because it’s important, I want you to layout first the size of these factories because they are mega factories.  They are--you know, the--I think the scale of it threw me.  So, just talk a little bit about how they work.  They’re almost internal cities with their own security forces and everything at their own banks and--okay, so, talk about these kind of factory towns.

JC: That’s true.  Foxconn is the largest electronics manufacturer in the whole world.  It is a Taiwanese company.  When Taiwan and China’s relationship improved a little bit in the 1980s, Taiwanese owner, Terry Gou, who actually find Foxconn or Hon Hai Precision Industry in Taipei, right?  He is one--among one of the earliest entrepreneurs who invest in the coastal regions of China.  And that really changed their game.  Electronics manufacturing is no longer in-house in Silicon Valley like Apple and other companies.  They shift their jobs to South Korea, Taiwan, Japan.  But later on, when China opens up to become the world factory, it really changed everything.  And Foxconn is such an important case.  It has more than one million in terms of the workforce, more than one million.  Take a look.  In Hong Kong, we have about 7.4 million in terms of the total population.  But Foxconn had more than one million in terms of their workforce.  They got support from the Chinese government to build, as you put it very nicely, a factory city.  There are banks.  There are stadiums, football courts, cinemas.  But, of course, it is typically having the warehouses, multi-story dormitories.  And mainly the most important thing is they have their manufacturing compressors 24 hours a day and all through the year without stop.  And that is the secret to make our iconic product in the 21st Century that you and me have been looking forward to have the latest model of the iPhones, iPads.  But put into the historical context in 2010, Foxconn was the only manufacturer or producer in the whole world of Apple’s iPhone and the original iPad, the tablet.  With this background, that is really important.  After 2008 and 2009, the global financial crisis, China recovered quite quickly when we compare with US or Europe and other countries because of the heavy state investment.  So, Foxconn is also one of the key players which benefit from all these [INDISTINCT] and the important supply of the workers.  They are mainly from the countryside, young migrants who are also forced to do overtime work day and night, 12 hours shift to assemble the very popular hot gadgets for everyone.  So, this is not just a factory, it is indeed the keynote in global capitalism.  Here, we can see all the contradictions that are employed, it is building the hope and dream for the young generation who no longer wants to be like their parents, just farm on the land which will not keep you starving, right?  You can survive on the farmland.  There is very difficult time for you to make it further in terms of life.  And there are young people who also wish to have boyfriends, girlfriends to [INDISTINCT] experience about a city girl assumption.  So, it is rare in this geopolitical economic space that we discover their lives in the dormitories, on the assembly line on and off jobs.  And that really begin a decade-long research which I have never thought about that.  Doing a PhD seems to be a lonely journey.  But indeed doing this as a collective project, I found it as most meaningful, maybe yet the meaningful project in my life.  But this--but this is really one of that.

CH: I want to talk--before we talk about the working conditions, the creation of these incredibly large factories have--has affected the social fabric.  You write in the book about the stay-behind children because when they live in these dormitories, and we should say that the married couples don’t live together, they’re segregated by sex, eight people to a room, as you write in your book, very stringent security people.  Even your spouse is unable to visit the dormitory.  But it had a tremendous impact in terms of breaking apart the family structure.  Can you address that before we explain what happens inside the factories?

JC: Well, Chris, this is an excellent point that you make, a very good observation.  Dormitory is not a welfare system that is provided for ordinary workers no matter they’re single or married.  Yeah.  And some even have their children actually.  But everyone only have an upper bunk or the lower bunk bed.  It is a crowd living condition.  Usually 10, 12, or even up to 24 people are living together.  Well, it is sex segregated, so either female dormitory or male dormitories.  When I did undercover research, I borrowed a staff card.  I put on the uniform, sometimes just a photo, another what I call a sister, to go into the dormitory.  But this is a very important time for me to understand further about social significance of the structure.  Leaving their home from the village in the city, the high living cost prevent them to rent their own apartment.  So, this is the background why husband and wives, they also have to get separated.  They are not managers who might be entitled to a couple--a family room.  So, only one collective dormitory room would house tens of thousands of migrants.  Thus, this is the most cost effective way to keep the migrant workers [INDISTINCT] really.  Foxconn, as well as other companies, don’t really mean to provide a permanent force.  So, dormitory is an important sociopolitical space.  You can easily be extended to work long hours and then you just get back to the dormitory which is just next to the building blocks where you’re assembling their products online.  And then after about like 10 or 12 hours, you go to sleep and then you go back to work.  So, this is a social reproductive system that is very cost competitive.  You can have the extension of the working hours.  But ultimately, you only have migrants from everywhere and some are on the nightshift as the others are on the dayshift.  So, always, there are some kind of disruptions.  This is unlike us, maybe we have our private bathroom.  But there were always noises, some quarrels, or inconvenience, security problems.  So, it is not a very present environment even though Foxconn is not really the only player in designing the dormitory system.  Dormitory system is integral to capitalist accumulation process.  It is just a space or a social place for people to get some energy and then they got enough power, labor power to work again.  And you are right, most of the time, because they are just randomly put into the room so you may not know each other quite well.  There is not very in-depth friendship or relationship here.  And the political consequence is some kind of isolation [INDISTINCT] yeah.

CH: And we should be clear, as you write in the book, that because of the variety of dialects within China, people can be put into a room and can barely communicate often with many of their roommates because of they don’t speak that dialect.

JC: Well, you are very sensitive to these social relationships.  And that’s right.  Indeed, the opening chapter focused on the 17 years old suicide survivor.  And she does have some problems to understand each other because everyone speak quite different kind of their own dialects or use some terms and languages that are quite different.  Yeah.  So, if there would be higher wages, I don’t think everyone will have to be crammed into such a small, tiny space while you do not sunk your roots with your family, like, cousins or sometimes your husband and wife together.  It is indeed the very competitive job market and environment is, from afar, it is one of the most modern workplaces in the whole world.  Air-conditioned, very shiny glass door, huge scientific pack, but inside, as you look deeper based on workers, their poetries, the photos, the videos they share with us firsthand, it really blew my mind and take me much longer time than ever before to understand the struggle faced by these teenagers.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the exploitation of workers in tech manufacturing in China with the author, Jenny Chan.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the exploitation of workers in tech manufacturing in China with author, Jenny Chan.  So Jenny, now I want to ask you about the working conditions which you document in the book.  And I think, you know, we should begin by stating that these are totalitarian states within a totalitarian state, constant monitoring, constant surveillance.  But just explain what the work life is like for these people living.  And we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of--I don’t know how big the largest--maybe you know, the largest factory center is, but we’re just talking about massive city-like industrial centers.  So explain what the working life is like.

JC: The biggest one actually have more than half a million labor force there.  So workers are quite young, between 16 years old and above 30s.  Some are a little bit older because nowadays, Foxconn, just like others, have some difficulties to really find young productive workers to just do some repetitive work like a robot.  These are their languages.  And I do pay very close attention to their expressions.  Every day, just like the same day, starting quite early, if you are the dayshift worker, by about 7:00 AM, you might be already there because you’re going to take the more drill or morning assembly but that is not paid.  About 7:40 you get on line, sometimes you are standing the whole day until like lunch break or sometime later you might get a little break from work.  Otherwise, you are meeting the quota every hour.  There is no any margin for mistake.  Apple had their managers who are stationed on line that these managers are very concerned about product design quality, but they tend to pay much less attention to their own supplier code of conduct.  So there are rules and regulations, like overtime, compulsory overtime is not allowed.  But in reality, they are working seven days in a week, sometimes two weeks until you got a day off.  And the bad situation will be you only have one day off in the entire month.  So thirty days and one day.  Why the one day?  So you’re going to change from day to nightshift and therefore, I cannot just keep going in this evening.  At least have to--have got some time for rest before I turn into another cycle for a month.  So working hours are pretty long and it is compulsory.  You cannot just say I got sick leave or I have my child who needs my attention.  It is really a tough regime.  But I want to highlight that because you are very smart, you come up with the term about surveillance or workforce control like a totalitarian regime, I do agree that in a sense it is like a highly pressured, highly stressed environment because there is no margin for mistake.  The product are so expensive, they are making iPhones really high level product, very sophisticated electronics products, right?  So quality control is very important.  This, again, put them under more pressure.  They are always being shouted or yelled at, “Oh, you are working too slow.”  But they are indeed working to their limits already.  Every time they can even express to us that when they are standing, they are like sleeping.  So their poetries are very touching to me.  It tells you the limitation about the body.  You just feel very fatigue after 10 or 12 hours a day.  But the source of this pressure is not just about a militaristic regime, yeah, the Taiwanese leader had also served in the army beforehand, but it is indeed a supply chain system over the global supply chain structure that we have to got a handle to understand a little bit.  It is by Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, all these giant electronics players, how do they shape the production process by placing the orders on demand?  So it is a just in time production model and in a way, no one wants to keep a high level of stock.  When the goods are not moving, you are just losing money by putting it on to the warehouse.  So all these really help us to understand much better about the--sometimes helplessness or powerless situation faced by these young workers who have no family members around, some of them for the first time getting into the city and the states, the Chinese government, despite the very important labor laws and regulations that have been implement in the 1995, 2008, but these regulations and rules seems to be just most of the time put aside to facilitate production around the clock.  So it is the global supply chain, it is also about the specific state context that shape their lives.  But just a one really short sentence, it is not just about coercion, it is also about productive desire in them, just like you and me, they really want to have a better life now.  It is China we are talking about, the world global hegemon competing with US and other big nations.  These young people, they also want to have their place in the city or in their life, so there are many different hopes and plans in their--them, but ultimately, many of these dreams, shattered.

CH: It’s--you write in the book about the heavy propaganda campaign to essentially prey on the hopes and dreams of these workers including the sayings by the chairman of Foxconn that are kind of, you know, the inverse of Mao, it’s all about conformity and productivity, Mao, who’s all about revolution, I want you just to mention, we only about four minutes left, first, quickly, because you have pictures in the books of people who have been poisoned.  I mean, they’re--you have pictures of hands that are totally discolored from handling these products but they have to--they come in contact with a variety of toxins including aluminum dust which has exploded and created fires and killed people in factories.  Just speak quickly about that.  And then I want you to talk a little bit about the student interns because they bring in these kids from these vocational schools that’s really the exploitation of child labor.

JC: The--these two phenomena you mentioned, they are related.  The first about so-called industrial accidents or it is manmade, it’s for almost a month, day and night on the job, we are there on-site in Chengdu City in Sichuan province, and finally, it’s the aluminum dust explosion when human beings are polishing the iPads.  The corners are so smooth and they are not made by machines.  They are polished by human hands.  Someone just turned on the lights and it triggered the explosion and fire.  Four people died on-site and injured dozens more.  We had already made the video clip and sent it to--at that time, the Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, and we also communicate with the CEO of Foxconn, Terry Gou.  Apple keep silent while Foxconn answered to The Guardian because it becomes a big scandal in the media then, and they say everything is perfect.  And ultimately, in May 2011, it explode and killed.  About the usage of student interns, they are brought in from technical or vocational schools or over China, some are even younger than 16 years old, the minimum legal working age in China.  And these young students are so-called ticking internship programs but without learning anything useful or related to their majors.  This is another forced labor system that we can identify.  Why?  Because these students are brought in in big number, if you have to recruit everyone in the labor market, it is timely, it is costly, but having these students who came with their teachers, teachers are tumbling as their teachers as well as their managers on line.  So teenage student interns, it is really a moral crisis.  It is not just about using their time--wasting their time for study but it is destroying their future in the long run.  So the final question is really about the legal responsibility of Foxconn and other companies as well as Apple, and other companies who are exploiting from their labor to profit themselves.  I really hope that we have longer time to cover every important topics and insights you just mentioned.  And ultimately, it is about their hope to have more progressive change.  We are not going to write a book that is really just about death and despair or hopelessness.  It is also about hope and beginning some positive energy and collaboration at home and overseas.  So it is also about labor and consumer movement that we are trying to energize.

CH: Great.  And we should add that those teachers are paid by Foxconn because of the high rate of depression, and anxiety, and propensity towards suicide by many of those younger workers.

JC: That’s true.  The teachers are paid.  Somehow I am also sympathetic with them.  I did communicate with quite a number of teachers, some of them also have their young daughters or sons who are studying and they answer us they would never put their children onto the assembly line like them.  So they do know.  They do know something is very wrong and corrupt right here and no one seems to bother with the huge expansion of vocational education in China.  We are envisioning higher value add or low rate economy, a digitalization formation of China, so technology, as well as skills, these are really important, but if you are not training them at all, you just want to have that--their energy and time to work up to 12 hours because these teenagers, they’re interns and not classified as employees.  So their wages and benefits indeed ultimately are lower than the co-workers so they have the cheap labor.  And teachers is somehow like a very passive role here because if they did not obey the order, maybe they also lose their job.  But if they do so, they are complicit, they are also involved themselves in the human chain and that is a forced labor chain.  So I thought this is a very good conversation to open up.  To think about their--so-called their choice to work in Foxconn, hoping to gain some knowledge and experience useful for them, but ultimately, it doesn’t realize to who should be responsible for all of these?  And very interestingly, Apple indeed work with Stanford University and carry a number of academics, I will be really interest to know more about how actually they ensure or guarantee good internship programs are in place and not like these, none of the teachers or students funded meaningful with their three months, six months, or even as long as a year internship, that is in the extension of their production [INDISTINCT]

CH: Great.  That was author Jenny Chan on her new book, “Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and The Lives of China’s Workers.”

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