I just finished watching the ABC Nightline report cleverly named iFactory: Inside Apple. ABC’s Bill Weir was given unprecedented access to Foxconn, where iPhones, iPads and Macs are assembled. If you’ve been following this saga for a while, there wasn’t that much new here. It was good to see ABC provide some context as to why people go to work at Foxconn, and the report provided some background on working conditions at the plant.
Weir starts off touching upon the Apple mythos, then goes straight into how our iDevices are made. For example, it takes 141 steps to make an iPhone. Something that surprised him: Apple products are largely made by hand. Weir points to a tiny iPad camera module, noting that with two 12-hour shifts each day Foxconn can crank out 300,000 of those in a day. According to ABC it takes 5 days and over 300 hands to assemble an iPad, but they aren’t made by robots, they are made by people. Mostly young people. “No one looked over 30,” observed Weir.
In fact, Weir was there on a day when thousands of young people lined up to apply for work at Foxconn. What was remarkable was that the only requirement seemed to be a valid national ID card. But, as Weir points out again and again, the demand for Apple products is so high that Foxconn can’t keep up. They hire en masse and train people for days before putting them to work. Workers at Foxconn tend to be quite young, around 18, and they will often come from impoverished rural areas for the work. This actually has a positive benefit to the people left behind in the villages who told ABC that they felt life was better without the young people around. “More of everything,” noted one villager. I have to imagine the generation gap was at play here somewhat, as family ties would still find some people missing their grandkids. But the opportunity at Foxconn is what causes workers to flock to the factories.
As for working conditions, I saw very little that was shocking. The only exception was the nets, placed around dorms and other buildings with high floors, which are designed to make potential suicide victims think twice before jumping. Those you don’t see many places. Of course, the suicides at Foxconn are partly what drew so much attention to the factory. Louis Woo, a Foxconn executive, explained how Tim Cook flew to China to help organize counseling for people to prevent further suicides.
Otherwise, the Foxconn areas shown in the report looked far nicer than any American factory I’ve been in (and I’ve been in a few). People complained about a lot of the same stuff you find anywhere — pay, food, hours. But then, workers do work a 12 hour shift. And they stay in dorms with seven other people in a room that makes my college dorm look grandiose by comparison. Still, this isn’t unusual in a country with the single largest population on the planet by far.
Weir did show footage of workers napping at their stations, saying that if one ate their meal fast enough, they could catch a quick nap. Foxconn workers have two one-hour breaks to eat, but the executive who led Weir around the factory explained the naps after meals are, in fact, a Chinese tradition.
Foxconn offers workers what looked like a very pleasant Internet cafe, recreational facilities (a soccer field was shown) and some education, like English classes. ABC gave no percentages on how many workers use these amenities, but it was pointed out that most people are there to simply work.
Then there were the inspections by the Fair Labor Association. The head of that organization explained that he expected Foxconn to put on a show, but that they will conduct “bottom up” interviews to ensure working conditions are decent.
I won’t spoil the rest, but ABC fairly points out that several other companies contract Foxconn, and Apple takes heat because they are so visible. While the report didn’t have any huge revelations (they were denied an interview with Tim Cook), I think it painted a fair picture of where our Apple gear comes from. Looking at the Apple lines at Foxconn, I feel a little better knowing they are probably enjoying some of the best working conditions in China.