Over last few weeks the Apple supplier Foxconn has been in the news yet again for the usual reasons: fights, strikes, riots, underage workers, etc. Every few months the same sweatshop narrative comes up about Foxconn (because apparently it’s the only manufacturer in China), and every time unverified and wildly exaggerated media reports hastily come out (and that doesn’t even include super-fraud Mike Daisy).
I’m always disappointed when this happens; not only because of the eagerness to jump on a largely bogus narrative, but also because it overshadows what I think are the much more interesting nuances of factory life in China. Yes, the hours are long, life is hard and conditions aren’t enviable, but there are deeper issues than that.
Last week I recorded a podcast (listen here) with Liu Zhiyi, a former intern from Southern Weekend, who got a job at Foxconn’s Longhua factory for 28 days in 2010 in order to do undercover reports.
One of the big misconceptions resulting from the sweatshop narrative is that workers are routinely forced to work ungodly hours. In fact, the workers themselves usually demand as much overtime as they can get. While at Foxconn, Liu described this saying, “For the workers desperate for making money, overtime is like ‘a pain that can breathe.’ Without it, the days without money make them ‘suffocate.’”
They’ve travelled so far from their hometowns to work that any idle time not spent making money is seen as a waste.
The conditions are another misconception. At Foxconn, they’re pretty good – especially compared to other factories. (James Fallows recently posted some photos from the same factory Liu worked at – here, here, here and here).
Liu said about the factory, “I have entered a system, and the system can provide everything that I need for my body. We have gymnastics, swimming pool, exercise room… The only thing they don’t provide is time.”
Because of the long hours (which remember, the workers desperately want and will seek elsewhere if they don’t get), it’s easy to lose touch with some simple human needs. Liu explained how roommates are always turning over or working different shifts, so it’s hard to make friends (or even learn people’s names). And because different departments are usually skewed one way or the other toward a single gender, it’s even harder to find a lover. He said the resulting emotional imbalance and conflicts over girls are often what spark fights in the factory.
The thing that surprised Liu most though, and what he sees as the biggest problem, is how workers seem completely puzzled about their futures. Earlier he wrote: “They often dream, but also repeatedly tear apart their dreams, like a miserable painter who keeps tearing up his drafts. ‘If we keep working like this, we might as well quit dreaming for the rest of our lives.’”
He says they’re almost all focused foremost on making a lot of money, but they don’t know how much is enough or what the next step is after making the money. They hope to move up in the world through their hard work, but they often don’t know where the path is, or if there even is a path. This, he says, could be a major problem in the future if society and the government can’t address it.
Anyways, Liu was very insightful about his time in the factory. I hope you’ll listen to the full podcast.