If you use an iPhone, chances are it was made at a sprawling factory complex in Zhengzhou, China, a city of about 9.5 million people in what is historically one of the country's poorest provinces, Henan.
The factory, run by the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, employs about 350,000 people and produces about half of the world's iPhones. In the busy summer months before the autumn release of a new iPhone, the factory produces 500,000 phones a day, or up to 350 a minute.
The Foxconn Zhengzhou Science Park is actually more than 30km outside downtown Zhengzhou, separated by freeways, suburbs, and dirt scrublands.
But with a workforce rivalling that of many US cities, the factory has sprouted what residents have dubbed "iPhone City." There, factory workers live in dorms in 10- or 12-storey buildings outside Foxconn's gates, while a migrating workforce of entrepreneurs and vendors sets up shop below to make a living cooking street food, offering massages, or selling socks and other knickknacks.
"These places aren't like cities," Thomas Dinges, a senior principal analyst at the market-research firm iSuppli, told CKGSB Knowledge of the communities that form around Foxconn's factories, of which there are 12 in China. "They are cities."We recently spent a day in iPhone City talking to factory workers, restaurant owners, and the many others whose lives are affected by Foxconn. Here's what it was like.
Since the company began producing the iPhone for Apple in 2007, the company has faced accusations of labour abuses, poor working conditions, and harsh penalties for workers who make mistakes.
The company suffered a wave of suicides in 2010 and 2011, which prompted Apple and Foxconn to make changes at the factories.
The complex was built in 2010 with $600 million in assistance from the provincial government. It was built almost exclusively to serve Apple's iPhone production needs.
Even now, the government provides Foxconn with tons of support, tax incentives, and subsidies to keep production in Zhengzhou. The local government paved new roads to the factory, built power plants, helps covers energy and transportation costs, and pays bonuses to the factory for meeting export targets.During the first two years of production, those bonuses totalled $56 million, the New York Times reported in 2016.
Meeting Foxconn's never-ending need for workers requires considerable effort from the government. The province enforces quotas to local villages and cities for the number of workers they must provide to the factory.
In 2016, state-owned coal companies lent workers to the factory. And last year, the Financial Times reported that trade schools were requiring students as young as 16 to work at the factory to gain "work experience" to graduate.
In the run-up to the launch of the iPhone X, many students were found to be working overtime, which is illegal under Chinese law. "Every city's department of labour and ministry of human resources is involved," Liu Miao, the head of a private recruiting centre in Zhengzhou, told the Times in 2016.
The factory workers that we spoke to — four in total — described their daily schedule like this:
One worker in charge of wiping a special polish onto the LCD screen told The Guardian that she handles 1,700 iPhones every day, or about three screens each minute for 12 hours a day. Others, with more difficult jobs like fastening chip boards, take up to a minute per iPhone, or about 600-700 per day.
Foxconn employees that we spoke to described work at the factory as mundane, but hardly overwhelming. More boring and repetitive than anything else. "The employees always say the people outside want a job," one employee told CNET. "and the people inside want to quit."Source: The New York Times
The "bonded zone" is a strange arrangement, one of a slew of perks granted to Foxconn by the Zhengzhou government. The New York Times has a great exposè explaining more about how it works here»
Liu, like many of her fellow vendors, is from Henan and used to work at a Foxconn factory. When she was 18, she and her husband, who she had just met through a matchmaker, left their village to move to Shenzhen.
The two worked for several years at Foxconn's Longhua factory, once it's largest complex. But when they heard Foxconn was opening a factory closer to their lao jia, or hometown, they took their savings and opened a restaurant serving the workforce.
"People like to work at this factory because you are close to your family if you are from Henan," Liu said. "You get Sundays off and you can go home and visit your family. That's the perk."Liu's son lives in Qian Hou with Liu's parents. She and her husband see him once a week, on Sundays, when the factory is closed.
Many people who work at factories farther from their hometown only see their families twice a year — on Chinese New Year's and National Day.
The vendors open their restaurant early in the morning to cook breakfast for the day shift workers.
After the lunch crowd leaves around 1pm, they clean up the restaurant and sleep for a few hours. They reopen around 7pm for dinner and the night shift workers.
They stay open until the night workers' have lunch at 1am, and go sleep around 3am after cleaning the restaurant. Most nights, Liu and her husband sleep only 3 or 4 hours. Liu understands the appeal of working at Foxconn, where she says the pay is higher than running a restaurant and there's less pressure.Because there are tons of factory jobs and the job itself is repetitive, you don't have to think, she said. You just go to work and get paid.
"There's more pressure running your own business," she said. "I have to think about what I'm missing. I have to worry if business isn't good."
Liu estimated that the factory, at this time of year, usually has 120,000 employees. This year, it seems like there is half that, she said.
By way of evidence, Liu motions to trays of pre-made food behind a deli counter. Two years ago, she said, all that food would be sold half an hour after she opened in the morning, even during the slow months. We were there around 2pm, after lunch, and the trays were still more than half-full.Liu used to be so busy she could had to have 6 full-time employees. Now, she is down to two.
No one is positive what will replace the village, but Liu has heard rumours that the government wants to turn the scrub lands around the factory into gardens. A new airport is situated next to the factory. No one wants to look at a shanty village and dirt when they fly in.
When we asked what Liu would do when the bulldozers came, she smiled as though we had asked about the weather."I guess we'll move somewhere else, set up our restaurant, and do the same thing," Liu said.
Most workers that arrive know about the factory's reputation for long hours and constant overtime. There are tons of factories to work at in China. Most come to Foxconn, specifically for the overtime, not in spite of it. "Usually, workers don't come unless there is the opportunity for overtime. They want the higher salaries," Liu explained.
The pay is so low that the Chinese government does not take out any payroll taxes from factory workers' salaries, according to BBC.
Foxconn's pay, according to the workers that we spoke to, is better than most other non-skilled jobs in China.The pay at the Zhengzhou factory is lower than that of the one in Shenzhen, but, the workers said, many prefer to work in Zhengzhou because it is closer to their hometowns and the cost of living is cheaper.
60 hours of overtime comes out to a 14-hour workday, seven days a week.
"Most people want to work overtime. If you have something to do, maybe you don't do overtime. If you don't have anything to do, you'll probably work overtime," said a 27-year-old factory worker whose family name is Zhang.
After a 45-day probationary period, base salaries can rise to anywhere between 2,500 RMB to 3,200 RMB ($393-$503). Still, the pay in 2018 seemed to be identical to the base wage at the factory reported by Recode in 2015.Workers who are willing to take on the night shift can see their monthly salary rise to as much as 5,000 RMB ($786), including overtime.
The nonprofit Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour estimate that the living wage for iPhone workers should be around 4,131 RMB ($650), which means that workers practically need to take on tons of overtime to make ends meet.
"It's a simple life. Just as simple as the village," Chen, a lanky, baby-faced 22-year-old from a village about an hour away, told Business Insider.
The others at the table were Zhang, 27-years-old and surly, who spent most of his time fiddling with his smartphone, Hu, a 28-year-old woman married with two kids, and Guo. At 40-years-old and affable with a set of pearly white fake front teeth, Guo was an outlier.
Most workers at the factory, they said, were in their twenties, which gives it an almost collegiate atmosphere.Each had worked at the factory for about a year, except for Chen, who was coming up on his 2-year anniversary. An eternity, he admits. Most leave after a year.
"After a year, people get bored or disinterested. When that happens, they leave," said Chen.
Instead, Chen and his tablemates stock and check the phones after they are assembled and packaged.
But it's not like they chose it. You don't apply for a particular role. You just apply for a job at the factory. Whichever department needs people is where you get assigned.
"Our job is more relaxed. We can take breaks when we want. It's not the same for people on the assembly line," said Chen.But workers on the assembly line have more opportunity for overtime, which means a higher salary.
"Although they can make up to about 5,000 yuan per month, which is quite high in my eyes, I feel that these workers are not in good health because of all the overtime," said one worker, who makes 3,000 RMB a month as a clerk, told SCMP.
"You do the same thing everyday. It never ends. After a while you get annoyed at the thing you are doing. You don't even notice it at first," he said. "Eventually, I felt annoyed to the core of my heart. Like I had no purpose." But Chen said he was lucky. Because he didn't have a family yet, he could leave his job and go after a better one. Many people on the assembly line, he said, have to provide for children. Leaving isn't really an option.
It hadn't seemed to cross his mind that a better opportunity might mean doing a job less monotonous or that being paid more would mean he, and others in his position, could afford to work less hours. Guo finished his beer and excused himself. He had to head to the factory. He works the night shift, which starts at 8 pm.
When asked if working at Foxconn was better or worse, they said no. "The conditions are all the same. It's just making a living," said Chen.
Others, they said, play billiards at a bar nearby, sing at a karaoke lounge, play sports in the apartment complex, or play video games at one of the internet cafes. Cover at a club in the town might cost 10 RMB ($1.60), Arnnet reported.
But everyone is different. Chen and Zhang were careful not to generalise. With a workforce the size of a small city, experiences vary, Chen explained.Both Zhang and Chen play video games on their phone, usually the wildly popular Tencent mobile game, Honour of Kings. But they only have enough time for a few rounds before they go to sleep around 10 or 11 pm.
Others have complained. A Foxconn employee at the Zhengzhou factory told South China Morning Post in December that the alternating shifts means that it's hard to get a good night of sleep for anyone.
Living conditions have frequently been a point of contention for Foxconn workers, as well other Chinese factories. In 2012, workers rioted at a Foxconn factory in Taiyuan, Shanxi due to complaints over poor food and sanitation and overcrowded dorms. One report said the dorms in Shenzhen reeked of rotting trash and sweat. Those that hate the dorms, or have a family, can rent a one-bedroom apartment for 400 RMB ($63) per month. But few do.Though Chen and Hu are both married, their spouses work elsewhere. Hu's husband works at a different factory in Zhengzhou, while Chen's wife works in his hometown. They see each other on Sundays and vacations.
Chen spoke similarly. "Life was very simple in the village. We never really thought about the future. We just played marbles," he said. "I have no idea how long I'll be here. One day, there may be a better opportunity. If there is, I'll take it."
That better opportunity didn't seem to be a promotion, a different career, or owning a business. In Zhang and Chen's eyes, the better opportunity was simply another factory job, albeit perhaps one that paid slightly better, was closer to home, or required fewer hours.
Zhang and Chen's perspective is far from the only one. One worker told SCMP that he hoped to leave Foxconn within the year, using the skills he learned making phones to open a phone repair shop. Others speak of opening their own business. In Shenzhen, considered by many to be China's Silicon Valley, there are stories of entrepreneurial factory workers who go on to start major businesses.But for most, the dreams are simpler.
"I don't have many big dreams," one teenage Foxconn worker told SCMP. "All I want is to be with the people I like, and not worry about food and clothing."
"We have 5,000 years of culture behind that. Of course I have to take care of my parents," he said.
"Most of the Chinese factories out there have owners who would delay or even cancel payment of salaries," he said. "Here, I am sure of getting extra pay for working overtime."
Other reports have not been as rosy. Employees told CNET in 2012 that managers often subject employees to public humiliation when they make mistakes. The Guardian reported similarly last year, saying if someone messes up, a manager may decide to force a worker to prepare a formal apology that he or she must read to their co-workers.
Many have suggested the condemnations have created a culture of silence. The workers know they're easily replaceable — China has 99 million factory workers, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics estimated in 2009.Zhang was resistant that the workers' situation was bad.
"There's a lot of freedom in this job. If you don't like it, you leave. If you want a vacation, you leave. You just don't get paid. It's easy to leave. It's easy to get another job," he said.
"This is the case for many subcontractors in electronics," Keegan Elmer, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin, told Le Monde last year. "The wages are low, the days very long, the conditions quite bad. The industry wears out employees very quickly, and recruits nonstop. For low-skilled jobs, the use of trainees and temporary workers is massive."