NYU grad student goes undercover in Chinese iPhone factory and it ain't pretty

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/04/21/nyu-grad-student-goes-undercov.html


“But the good thing is that the company has installed nets around the stairs to prevent people from committing suicide.”

Ugh, this old thing again. Foxconn factory workers have a much lower (about 1/15th) suicide rate than China as a whole. It’s also lower than any US state. Statistically, for such a large company (about a million people), we’d expect 200 suicides/year … but the worst year was 14. It’s as if Foxconn saves 186 lives per year. Wikipedia article, with sources.

The grad student should go undercover as a Chinese farmer and see how much that pays in comparison, how hard that life is, and see if it’s worth it… because rural life is the alternative for many of these workers.


OK, I get that, but which gigantic US company is stiffing Chinese agricultural workers and making their lives unnecessarily grim and hard so that a few (already well heeled) Americans can get even richer selling overpriced shiny baubles to hipsters?

Everybody votes with their wallet, what you buy is what you support. Labeling laws and investigative journalism are what lets you cast an informed vote.


This sounds like a horrifying nightmare to someone who has never worked hard.

Reading Dickens, it seems like physical abuse was, in those days, a perfectly normal “management” technique. In the British Navy of the 18th century, it was believed that sailors needed a good flogging from time to time. That seems barbaric to us today, but also it sounds totally counterproductive.

I wonder if we will outgrow verbal abuse in the same way? Already it’s fairly rare. I myself have never had a boss who managed by yelling, but we’ve all heard stories. Will future generations look back at us amazed that it took us so long to learn the carrot works better?


I’ve worked in canneries in Alaska and other factory jobs … this sounds no different. During the peak of salmon season, 16 hour days are not unheard of, and of course you work 7 days a week — no days off.

Factory jobs suck, no kidding. I guess I was expecting something worse.


You should hear the grad students round here (Univ of Arizona) complain about their work.


So for a couple months you worked hard. Congrats. We all have.
Labor conditions should always be a topic of discussion especially in this so-called “world economy”.
It’s easy to sweep these kinds of things aside, but workers worldwide should be sharing more in the profits of which they are helping to produce.


The list of fully ethical companies producing electronics - smartphones in particular - is going to be very very short, I’m not even sure there even is a list to make.

There is some produce/fruit coming from China, ginger is the only off-hand thing I can think of, that I’m sure is owned by a subsidiary of one of the large US conglomerates/multinationals. I can’t say for sure, but I’m at least certain that it’s not a community owned co-op they’re running.

PS - I fully agree about voting with your wallet and staying informed.


Serious question. If it’s a better life than Stateside, why are you here and not there?

Correlation is not causality. Foxconn pays above average wages for unskilled Chinese labor. Chinese laborers send substantial percentages of their pay to their families across China. Dependency saves lives, not Foxconn. Meanwhile Chinese princelings live as well as their American counterparts. Communism my ass!


I’m curious what $450/month gets you around Shanghai?


Compared to the dorm rooms I saw in China in the nineties. those are clean and spacious. Even some of the university staff residential buildings I went into were nightmarish. I imagine university accommodations have improved in twenty years, but I doubt they’re anywhere near the level of American dormitories. A lot of this is relative.

If Facebook here in CA were hiring workers and showed them these dorms as perks, they would have zero hires. And I would wager than in twenty years, if Foxconn were to try to pack workers into this kind of dorm room, it wouldn’t fly. Conditions are going to improve and Chinese worker expectations will go up. Or, perhaps manufacturing will begin to shift out of China because of high costs, and workers in another country will deal with these conditions.


It’s about 3K ¥, or roughly quarter the cost of an apartment in Shanghai. That money goes further in rural provinces. Uneducated and unskilled but young and able-bodied rural workers come to the cities to find work to feed their extended families. They can’t afford to live in the city even on their wages, let alone have any left to send home, so they’re given bare-bones company-town style rooms in dorms run either by their employer or third-party companies that provide dormitories for smaller companies. Foxconn is generally regarded as one of the better paying of these industrial nightmares.


Serious answer: because suicide rate is not my only factor in determining where to work.

Exactly. The argument other people make is that factory jobs like this cause suicides. I’m also saying that even if there was a causality, the numbers wouldn’t support it.


Indeed. But the point is that an American-based multinational and the biggest company on Earth is exploiting that vast labor market gap to it’s own benefit. Foxconn is one of the lesser evils among Chinese factory corporations. It doesn’t make it a good system, and it’s still part of that system. Wealthy robber barons spending the minimum necessary to maintain a workforce that produces the maximum production without imploding, while the robber barons hold virtually all the political power to keep the masses uneducated, unable to organize their labor, and too busy and poor to afford political influence. The technical term for this is aristocracy.


I think the argument they are making is that the systemic political and economic inequality causes an unskilled labor market that’s atrocious, and suicide is one of those atrocities. I agree that the bigger picture shouldn’t get ignored, but the focus is put on Foxconn both because they’re the largest exmaple and because they exist entirely because of privileged classes in post-industrial nations appetite for certain status gadgets and their willingness to buy them from abusive corporations.

The myth that must be debunked again and again is that state-protected corporatocracy is somehow a fair and democratic form of capitalism, and that all the classes are playing on a level field.


OK, I give up. Which gigantic US company is stiffing Chinese agricultural workers?

So you’re saying Foxconn is on the whole, doing good? Who else is paying above average wages so allowing workers to support families back home?


Do you buy garlic at Trader Joe’s… cause that is from China.

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I’m saying the international economic system that allows Foxconn to exist is brutally exploitative and closer to indentured labor than fair market labor. It’s not a free market at all. It’s an ecosystem curated by the rich who own and control corporations such as Foxconn and Apple and myriad others. That Foxconn’s corporate overlords are among the lesser evils doesn’t mean they’re doing good. If they want to do good, they would use their influence to improve the system. They do not, because the safe stability of the status quo is preferable to them over an economic system that treats workers as stakeholders instead of powerless servants.

Again, Foxconn gets the focus because they’re the biggest and because they make the iconic product Western liberals tend to love. If anything, focusing on them is generous, since the system they depend on has many even worse players.

When investigative journalists have limited resources to investigate, they must decide whether or not they’re going to focus on a company that will get noticed by upper-middle-class Western liberals and possibly instigate some change. They don’t have the resources to infiltrate every abusive company. Those who have the resources to mount comprehensive investigations are the one’s actively working against publicity. This circumstance leaves the door open for people to (intentionally or not) deflect criticism on to strawman arguments by pretending that it’s about Foxconn only, or that it’s about factory labor being intrinsically bad. Since it’s neither, these strawman augments allow the conversation to be shifted away from the actual problems of exploitative labor systems. At best, they’re unintentionally shielding the investor class from criticism.

The investor class has cultivated such useful misunderstandings for centuries to protect their own control. All it costs them is investment in the media and astroturfing, and they can get the working classes to work against their own best interests by appealing to their noble pride in hard work. But the problem isn’t hard work. If the investor class had to work even half as hard as their workers for their own influence and inheritances, that would be wonderful. The problem is who uses who and how they monopolize political and thus economic power.


What vote do you have? ALL such electronics these days are made in such factories, and Apple’s contracted factories are understood to have much better conditions than many other Chinese factories.


Yeah, I came to mention that.

Fair point. But there is a reason that people move to the city to put these baubles together - its where the jobs are. And to be fair Americans aren’t just getting rich. China’s GNP has exploded in the last 20 years and created upward mobility for millions of Chinese. They finally just barely over took us in manufacturing a couple years ago. It will eventually get to the point where Chinese labor won’t be the cheapest, and somewhere else will be the next China (my money is on Africa, which China is already investing it.)

Granted, theses factory conditions don’t sound fun. Neither were factory conditions in the US. It will evolve. Until automation takes all those jobs away :wink:

No one wants to know how the sausage is made. They just want tasty sausage.