Hands Behind Your iPhone: Undercover Investigation of iPhone Factory in China

Monday, April 17, 2017

By Dejian Zeng

“Turn on the assembly line!” The line manager yelled at 7:30pm. A new day started for the night shift workers, including me.

The summer of 2016, I was working as an intern for China Labor Watch (CLW), a New York based NGO that sends people into factories to investigate wages and working conditions throughout China. This time our target was a factory called Changshuo (昌硕) in Shanghai. This factory is owned by the Taiwanese Pegatron Group, the second largest Apple supplier in China. According to the research of CLW, we found that because of the changes on wage structure, workers’ real wages in May 2016 have decreased substantially by 22.6% compared to the wages in September 2015. We believed the wage reduction on such scale might trigger a strike in the factory. From June 20th to Aug 5th, I worked on the assembly line, lived in the factory dormitory and stayed with workers. Even though I am not the only undercover investigator sent by CLW in this factory, we were not introduced to each other for security reasons. And here is the story of my life as a Chinese worker making the iPhone that is in your hands now.

The factory is located in a suburban section of the Pudong New Area. It took me 20 minutes to walk from the subway station to the factory. At the front door, dozens of people with their luggage were waiting in line for an interview. Some of them might have just arrived in Shanghai that morning after a few hours on the train from Jiangsu or Henan. Some might come from an overnight train from Sichuan or Guangdong. On that day alone, around 500 people were screened.

“Give me your ID,” the staff requested. After my ID was read by the system, I was asked to show my hands and recite the English alphabet. They needed to ensure all my fingers were intact and I am able to recognize the English letters that used on the assembly line. The interview took less than 30 seconds. I was already inside the factory even before I realized the interview was finished. However, workers could still be kicked out if they didn’t pass the mandatory physical examination later. Pregnant women, people with metal inside their body because of surgeries and people with tattoos longer than 10 centimeters would not be employed. It was not until two days later after we finished all the paperwork and had our photos taken that we signed the contract and started getting paid.

According to CLW, the factory had at least 50,000 workers at the time I arrived and was expanding for the production of iPhone 7. Most of the workers are men ages 18 to 30. Together in one campus, there are seven sub-factories generally operating 24 hours a day with two 12 hour shifts during weekdays and 18 hours on Saturdays with nine hours per shift. However, even though workers stay inside the factory for 12 hours during weekdays, we only get paid by ten and a half hours because the break time is deducted and unpaid. For Saturdays, workers are paid by eight hours. In total, the working hours reach 60 hours a week while the actual time workers stay in the factory is about 69 hours. The base salary is 2,320yuan ($347.8) per month for 40 hours a week. Overtime wages for weekdays is 20yuan per hour ($2.99/h) and is counted as 1.5 times of the base salary. For Saturdays, overtime wages are double (¥26/h, i.e. $3.89/h). I was assigned to the night shift for the first two weeks assembling the iPhone 6s. Afterwards, our whole line was changed to the day shift and was placed in another sub-factory a week later. On the first of August, we started assembling the iPhone 7.

What I did was the repetitive work of an assembly line. Sit straight. Take out the housing of iPhone 6s from the assembly line. Put it into the fixture and cover it up. Take the electronic screwdriver. Get one screw from the screw feeder. Fasten this #3 screw of the speaker to the housing. Feel by hands and check with eyes to ensure the screw is not unlocked or slanted. Put it back in the line for the next station. With my highest speed, all  these steps can be done in five seconds. This is Station 26-2, “Fasten Speaker to HSG(housing).”

Suddenly, the screw feeder got stuck! It happens once every few days. I beat the machine. I knocked it against the table. I knocked it again, harder. It still didn’t work. Thirty seconds had passed. The assembly line was still running fast and my only partner on this station was obviously not able to catch up. I felt very anxious watching the unfinished housings flow away on the assembly line. I pressed the button calling for assistance. At the same time, we started taking out the unfinished housings from the assembly line and put them on the table. The more we put on the table, the more anxious we felt. Five minutes later, the screw feeder was finally fixed. However, there were already a pile of pieces lying on the table. The line was still running and I had no extra hands to finish them. The line manager required us to use our break time to finish them. Workers call this the “obligatory overtime” even though we don’t really have an obligation since the break time is unpaid.

Break time is precious for workers. For the 12 hours that workers are inside the factory, we only take four breaks including lunch and dinner (if the canteen does provide dinner that day)— a 10 minute morning break after two hours of working, 50 minutes for lunch after another two hours, another 10 minute afternoon break and 30 minutes for dinner. Time control is strict. Exactly after 10 minutes, the assembly line is restarted. If we are late, the managers will be quick to reprimand us. Shouting and swearing is routine in the factory.

Ten minutes really isn’t a long time. I took off my finger cots one by one, walked from Station 26 to Station 1, walked out of the large workshop that contained thousands of workers, used the restroom, had a sip of water, walked back, put on my finger cots one by one and sat down. Time! The assembly line started running again. I always struggled over whether I should use the restroom or take a nap because I only have time to do one or the other.

Workers always seem to be very tired. During the break, workers are napping everywhere, on the table of the assembly line or on the uncomfortable couch in the lounge. I start training myself to be able to do the work when my eyes are closed, which never really worked. I always feel sleepy. Maybe the reason is because fastening thousands of screws over and over again is not very riveting.

To stay awake and make life easier, the other workers and I chatted with each other, but we had to be careful and keep our voices low. If the manager spots us, he would shout at us. We talked about a broad range of interests–the most beautiful female actors, the best horror movies we have ever watched, our favorite Kung Fu novels, the tension between China and the US in the South China Sea, the extracurricular dance class the workers hoped to send their children to, the opportunity of doing part-time jobs outside the factory after 12 hours of working. It is in these conversations that I come to realize the thousands of workers in this workshop each have their own stories. These are the vivid lives behind each iPhones that you are holding now.

It’s 5:30am. Because of overtime, we had the last two hours left for the day. An awful pain ran past my back constantly. After working eight and a half hours on the backless chair, I felt the muscle in my back fighting to hold my body up. Three weeks later, I would find out things got worse after changing to the day shift and transferring to another sub-factory. While feeling my back pain, I felt hungry. The canteen in that sub-factory never provided dinner during the dinner break at 5pm, which means I won’t have a meal from 11:30am to 7:30pm when I get off work. There is a shop selling snacks but the line is always long and the food is relatively pricey.

In the last 45 minutes of my shift, I increased my speed like this was the last 100 meters of the marathon. The manager started to count down, “200 pieces left…100 more…the last 50 pieces…Turn off the line!” I could feel the adrenaline was pulsing through my body, and I was  exhilarated and satisfied by my efficiency. Within 10.5 hours, our line produced around 3,600 iPhones. If we hit the target earlier, we are asked to sit quietly until the manager calls for a meeting of the whole line where he reviews our overall performance. If we are not able to finish the quota, we might need to work up until the last second.

“Speaker, 40 pieces fail. MIMO line, 50 pieces fail. Mic #4, 30 pieces fail… Are you not tired? Everyday we work until exhaustion yet we do not achieve our goals. Won’t you feel sorry about it? It’s a shame to see this and I don’t want this to happen again. I hope you make your work worthwhile in the end.” After the meeting, we were dismissed at 7:30am.

“Working overtime is voluntary in our factory,” a lecturer declared in one of the factory’s training sections for newly recruited workers. This statement is also written in the Apple Supplier Code of Conduct that “all overtime must be voluntary.” But these are merely empty words and represent an act the factory puts on for Apple.

Overtime is almost routine in the factory. Generally, it is two and a half hours for weekdays and eight hours for Saturdays. On July 6th, I talked with my supervisor for the first time about not working overtime. I knew if I did not give him an excuse, there was no way to get permission from him, so I made one up. I told him I had gotten a part-time job in the city which is better paid. I did not get an answer of my request until four days later. Within the four days, there were back and forth arguments, interrogation, and criticisms from the managers. I was even taken to the manger that was four levels higher than me. And the final answer I got was a “no.”

They condescendingly asked, “then you tell me who will do your work when you are gone?” They reasoned that there was no one to take my station if I did not work overtime. If that was the case and the factory really does not have any mechanisms to handle the situation, how can the factory keeps their promise about voluntary overtime?

I felt really powerless when I heard that “no.” The factory does have an Employee Services Center where workers can complain if they feel their rights have been violated. I went there. I got the response—“if you don’t work overtime, where are you going to get your money?” My complaint was never entered into the system.

How about the labor union then? For high level managers, the union might be a real existence for them. However, for ordinary workers, the labor union in this factory is just an online platform on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app and online platform. We were provided a QR code during the training which directed us to the platform, but it seemed that the platform had stopped functioning. The latest news on the site was from December 2015 about a psychological counseling lecture. The theme was—“Why we never stop working but still can’t get what others have achieved? Why I can’t get a job that is well paid, easy, and close to home?” Other newsletters are about events like a talent show or a football competition. I sent a message to the platform asking about the role of labor union but never received a response.

The issue around overtime is complicated because overtime can help workers raise their wages. Sometimes workers complain of not being able to work overtime and earn the double wages. In 2014, workers in a Foxconn factory even organized strikes because of the reduction on overtime. But there is a big difference between voluntary overtime and being forced to work it. While I can not speak for all requests to reduce overtime, according to the  CLW’s investigation and my own observation, at least 10 requests to not work was not honored.

It’s 7:45am. Taking off the uncomfortable ESD (Electrostatic Discharge) hat, uniform and slippers, I put them in the closet and locked it up. When I walked out of the factory, the day dawned sunny and hot. Some workers, like me, just finished a tiring day and got ready to get some good rest. Some workers just got out of the shuttle bus, walked inside the factory and got ready for the new day. After a 5yuan ($1.49) breakfast in the campus, I took the shuttle bus back to the dorm.

The hot shower in the dorm is always the highlight of the day even though it is a public bathroom shared by around 160 people. Eight workers live together in one room, and I had to walk quietly to not disturb my roommates’ sleep. To avoid congestion on campus, workers have different starting times for their shift.

Around 9am, I was finally on my bed. I connected my phone to the WiFi, which costs 20 virtual beans--the currency to run the WiFi system. To earn more beans I had to fulfill tasks such as downloading an investment or news app. For entertainment, workers invest their time on their phones to watch videos or play games. Some workers venture to the internet cafe to play video games like League of Legends, a premium that costs 4yuan ($0.6) per hour. However, I still couldn’t find a seat there on the weekends.

At 11 am, the sun was burning outside. I drew the curtain and was ready for sleep. I closed my eyes with hopes and expectations for a new day tomorrow, which was going to be the same as today.

The strike that we expected at the beginning did not happen. It’s very hard for workers to cultivate the unity when the turnover rate is extremely high. Every week, the manager will walk around the assembly line and ask for the names of workers who intend to resign next week. It becomes a routine. It is normal that workers leave after two weeks or a month after they were employed. During my time there, three of my eight roommates had left and two new roommates had moved in. Workers will just leave when they are unsatisfied by the wages and working conditions. Some of them might go to another factory and be disappointed again. Some might change their job entirely and become a waiter, a cook or a delivery man. What doesn't change for these wanderers is the increasing economic stress hanging over their head.

Right now, I am back to NYC, typing these words on my Macbook with my iPhone nearby. Three months ago, they were just the fascinating electronic products that I enjoy using every single day. Now, they mean more to me. What is behind these Apple products are millions of hands and millions of untold lives. Some of them are genuine friends that I know, who are still struggling whether they should use the restroom or take a nap in that 10 minute break, who are still struggling whether they should buy the 15yuan ($2.25) roasted chicken as a treat for the weekend, who are still struggling whether they should stay in the factory tomorrow and if not, where else will they go?