Inside 'iPhone City,' the massive Chinese factory town where half of the world's iPhones are produced
- Half of the world's iPhones are made at a sprawling Foxconn factory complex in Zhengzhou, China.
- It employs as many as 350,000 people and has spawned a mini city that residents have taken to calling "iPhone City."
- We spent a day in iPhone City, talking with residents, shop owners, and factory workers to hear about their lives.
- The story that emerged was one of low pay and long hours, but altogether not that different from other factories in China.
- Foxconn, the workers told us, is no better or worse than any of the other factories they had worked at.
- But few saw a way out of the grinding factory lifestyle in which they work six days a week, see their spouses once weekly if they are lucky, and frequently work dozens of hours of overtime.
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.
We got to the Foxconn Zhengzhou Science Park around 1pm, just after the workers' lunch break. While a few workers milled around the gates, it was a ghost town. An eerie vibe for a factory that employs 350,000 of Foxconn's 1.3 million employees.
Another worker committed suicide in January at the Zhengzhou factory. Because of the suicide, and reports that the factory had more aggressive security than some military compounds, I assumed we wouldn't be able to get in. To my surprise, we walked right past security into the campus.
Sprawling over 3.5km and dozens of buildings, it looks like any business park. Trees are everywhere, police and security guards stand on every street corner, and workers on break camp out in the shade. A decade ago, this area was barren dirt and fields of corn and wheat. In 2010, the government bought out local farmers and had the factory up and running within the year.
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.
The government even helps recruit, train, and house workers for the factory during peak iPhone production periods. During the peak summer months, a speaker can be heard near the entrance calling, "We're recruiting the cream of society. Your personality must be optimistic, your work diligent."
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.
Workers on the day shift begin streaming in through the factory's gates around 7am. Those that can afford it ride motor scooters, but most walk from the nearby dorms or take a bus if they live in the buildings further away.
The factory workers that we spoke to — four in total — described their daily schedule like this:
- Wake up at 6:30am, head to the factory at 7am, eat breakfast and start working at 8am.
- Take an hour for lunch. Most people eat at the canteen inside the campus, but some head to vendors outside because the food is better.
- The shift ends at 5pm, but if overtime is offered, most will take it and work until 8pm or 10pm
- After work, most eat dinner with friends or play video games until 10 or 11pm. Then go to sleep.
- The schedule is flipped for those on the night shift, but basically the same.
Foxconn's iPhone factory in Zhengzhou does "final assembly, testing and packaging" or F.A.T.P. That stage of manufacture requires around 400 different steps to assemble the iPhone. Most workers do one task repeatedly all day, such as polishing the screen, soldering one component, or fitting a single screw into the back of the phone.
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 complex has wide boulevards for the many buses bringing in workers and the freight trucks carrying products out. The provincial government made the campus into a "bonded zone," which means the Chinese government views it as foreign soil. The arrangement allows Foxconn and Apple to import and export goods virtually, allowing the products to then be sold in China or anywhere around the world.
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»
Most workers at the factory are between 18 and 25, though there are interns who are as young as 16. Among the workers that we saw over the course of a day, there was a fairly even split between men and women. Most come from Zhengzhou or villages around Henan, a province of 94 million people and one of China's poorest.
Just outside the entrance gate is a makeshift district of low-slung storefronts to serve factory workers who don't want to eat at Foxconn's canteen on campus. Many of the restaurant owners are former Foxconn employees or people from nearby villages who moved to capitalise on the new factory.
The alleyways of the makeshift village were deserted during the hot, dusty May afternoon. A vendor told Business Insider that we had come during the tail end of the factory's low season. By the end of June, the factory is ramping up production for the autumn release of the new iPhone. During those days, the vendor said, the workforce swells to 350,000 and the alleyways are packed.
There, we met Ms. Liu, a 31-year-old from Qian Hou, a village an hour's drive from Zhengzhou. Liu and her husband have run one of the larger restaurants serving workers since the factory opened in 2010. "We don’t make special food here. We just make whatever is cheap and will fill the workers up," Liu told Business Insider.
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.
Liu and the other vendors' lives move to the rhythms of the factory. Running a business catering to the factory workers is harder than working at the factory, according to Liu. "We wake up earlier and go to sleep later so we can serve both day and night shift workers," she said.
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 worries a lot about business. This year, the factory seems quieter than usual, she said. Half of the businesses in the makeshift village are closed, as the district is scheduled for demolition by the end of the year. But even with less competition, Liu and her husband are making a fraction of what they did in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
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.
The threat of demolition has scared most of the vendors and restaurant owners out of the makeshift village. Many were afraid they would pay the landlord rent for the year and be unable to get it back when the demolition trucks arrive, Liu said.
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.
Everyday, new workers show up to work at the factory. As we sat near the entrance of the campus, it seemed like every few minutes, a new person arrived via taxi or bus with a large suitcase and a shopping bag of food. Some arrive with a job already secured, while others show up in the hopes that nearby recruiting agencies can secure them an interview.
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.
While almost everyone in the area works for Foxconn, you can tell who works on production by the blue and red vests emblazoned with employee numbers. Foxconn workers told Business Insider that salaries at the factory start around 1,900 RMB per month ($298).
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.
Most workers can raise their salaries up to 4,300 RMB ($676) by taking on as much as 60 hours of overtime per week. Chinese law limits overtime to 36 hours a month, but many reports suggest that workers take on much more during peak production periods.
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.
At 5pm, the day shift ends and workers stream out of the factory's gates. Because it is still the low season, there is not that much overtime. The street becomes clogged with people, cars, motorbikes, and buses. Vendors set up shop along the road to get the business of the thousands heading home.
A short walk away is one of the sprawling dormitory complexes built outside the factory that workers have dubbed "iPhone City." There are a dozen or more 10 or 12-storey apartment buildings. Small businesses that cater to the workers line the streets. "There is everything the workers could want in this area. Food, massages, movies, everything," Ma, a 25-year-old masseuse from Zhengzhou who moved to the area last year, told Business Insider.
Like the makeshift restaurant district just outside the factory gates, the complex moves to the rhythms of the factory. When we walked in around 3pm, the area was deserted. Most of the shops were closed. Business owners were sleeping in the backs of their cars, taking a break before the factory let out in a few hours.
Just a few hours later, the town had sprung to life. There were street vendors selling socks, smartphone cases, and clothes, as well as mobile phone companies and banks offering services to workers getting off shift.
Farmers from nearby villages try to sell their fruit and vegetables to the workers as well.
Ma said that lower employment at Foxconn has big effects on the livelihoods of those in the town. During the summer months, Ma said, she can't get a ticket to the movie theatre because there are so many people. But, right now, everyone is struggling. "All of the businesses here are losing money until the workers get back in June," she said. "They can't afford the rent right now."
After work, people usually sit at one of the restaurants in the complex to eat dinner and drink beer with friends. At one of these restaurants, we met a group of four Foxconn workers, who invited us to sit with them. We explained that we wanted to understand their lives.
"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.
Chen and the others at the table aren't exactly friends. They all work on the same team, inventory control, which makes them "drinking buddies," said Guo. It's a pretty plum job, compared to those stuck on the factory floor, soldering components.
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.
The worst job at the factory is the assembly line, according to Chen, where you do the same task repeatedly every day for 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day. Chen was on the assembly line at his previous job. It wasn't long before he grew to hate it.
"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.
Zhang had little sympathy for those that don't like their jobs or complain about the overtime hours. He kept repeating, "If you want to do, do it. If you don't, leave. That's freedom. There are other jobs around."
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.
Chen wasn't working at Foxconn when he was on the assembly line, but another factory. He's been in the workforce for four years, going from factory to factory, moving when a new and better opportunity arises. Chen, like the others at the table, had done stints at other smartphone factories for Chinese manufacturers like Oppo or Xiaomi, at air conditioning factories, and in construction.
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.
Chen's main post-work outlet seemed to be drinking. Over the course of a few hours, he slugged back half a dozen or more pint-sized bottles of beer. Halfway through, he was slurring his words, while Zhang watched bemusedly and fiddled with his phone.
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.
Like almost everyone, Chen and Zhang live in the dormitories. The provincial government spent around $1 billion building the housing to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of workers at the factory. And it looks like they aren't done. We saw at least half a dozen buildings still under construction in the area we visited. And there are other dormitories on other sides of the factory campus.
Each dormitory room sleeps eight people, who live on bunk beds. Rent is around 150 RMB ($23.60) per month while internet costs an additional 18 RMB ($2.83). But because everyone works a different shift, the dorms rarely feel that crowded, Chen said.
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.
Most workers eat breakfast and dinner at the restaurants near the dorms or the factory gates, and lunch in the Foxconn cafeteria on campus. The food is more or less the same — noodles, vegetables, and skewers of meat and fish. Meals on campus are slightly cheaper, around 5-7 RMB ($0.78-$1.10). Food at the stalls or restaurants costs 8-20 RMB ($1.26-$3.14), depending on the dish.
Zhang and Chen thought little about economic mobility or a brighter future. When we asked what they hoped for the future, Zhang shrugged. At 27-years-old, Zhang seemed to have resigned himself to his current situation. After a moment of pause, he said, "Whatever opportunity is better, that's the future."
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."
Chen said that most aren't just thinking of themselves when they go to work. They have aging parents in the village who need assistance and, likely, children. If you are frugal, it is possible to save 75% of your salary, either to send home or for the future. But plenty of people spend their salary on beer and food, he said.
"We have 5,000 years of culture behind that. Of course I have to take care of my parents," he said.
In numerous interviews, Foxconn workers describe the factory as no worse than others in China, and in many cases better. Li, a quality control checker on the iPhone assembly line in Zhengzhou, told SCMP that Foxconn is more steady than most other employers in China.
"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.
The harsh reality that emerged in our conversations with workers and former workers is that Foxconn is neither the horrible exploiter that many Americans think it is, nor is it the bastion of well-treated labour that Apple and Foxconn like to portray.
"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."
But that hasn't stopped people like Zhang and Chen from trying to make a fulfilling life. As we finished our conversation, repeatedly, Chen tried to pay for our beers and dinner, telling us that it was "fate" that we had met. At 125 RMB, it cost as much as his monthly rent. We wouldn't let him, but his generosity remained.
When we asked Liu, the restaurant owner, if she thinks the Foxconn workers were happy, she laughed as though we had asked a ridiculous question. "We're not happy either. No one is happy. It's our livelihood. This is just life," she said. "It's hot. We work all the time."
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