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NYU Wagner

Hellish Life in the iphone Factory

For $400 a month, a NYU student goes undercover and all iphone customers should share in the shame

Kris LaGrange's picture
Apr 21, 2017

Imagine 12 hour workdays, living on site, sweatiness, bad food that you have to pay for, sleep depravation and gettinging fired if you are a student or are pregnant. Thats the life of working in a iphone factory in china. NYU student Dejian Zeng did this for 6 months and did a tell-all with Business Insider. Although it's a long article, you have to read every line. Stories from how they punish and thwart union organizing, chinese romance and enlightenment. Zeng even tells us what are the best jobs to have in this iphone hell. Apple should be ashamed of themselves, but as Trump delievers empty promises that he will single handidly bring these type of jobs to the United States, you realize just how stupid he is, and how third world the conditions are at these factories. Read the entire piece, and take from it what the interviwer and the whistleblower Zeng want us to do:

(Interviewer) Leswing: What would you recommend for an American, a European, a customer who is worried about these human issues, how can they create change?

Zeng: This is a very tricky issue because I personally think a boycott or stopping the customers who are buying Apple products is not realistic. It's very hard to mobilize that much people to stop buying Apple.

Talk more about it. You do more posting to your social media, and be aware that every day when you use your iPhone, just think that there are a lot of people working day and night to produce this kind of piece [he holds up his iPhone SE] right now you're using. There are human hands behind this.

Read more of the interview below:

Imagine going to work at 7:30 every night and spending the next 12 hours, including meals and breaks, inside a factory where your only job is to insert a single screw into the back of a smartphone, repeating the task over and over and over again.

During the day, you sleep in a shared dorm room, and in the evening, you wake up and start all over again.

That's the routine that Dejian Zeng experienced when he spent six weeks working at an iPhone factory near Shanghai, China, last summer. And it's similar to what hundreds of thousands of workers in China and other emerging economies experience every day and night as they assemble the gadgets that power the digital economy.

Unlike many of those workers, Zeng did not need to do the job to earn a living. He's a grad student at New York University, and he worked at the factory, owned by the contract manufacturing giant Pegatron, for his summer project.

Dejian Zeng spent six weeks in the summer of 2016 at a Pegatron facility on the outskirts of Shanghai for his summer project.

He told us:

  • He was paid 3100 yuan (about $450) and housing for a month of work, including overtime.
  • He slept in a dorm room with seven other people.
  • What happens when a factory starts producing an unreleased iPhone.
  • Factory workers usually cannot afford new iPhones.
  • There's an Apple-promoted app that the factory wants all its workers to download.
  • Why it can get stinky in the factories.
  • Why he believes iPhone manufacturing will never come to the United States.

Like many tech companies, Apple makes nearly all its computers and phones in China, using contract manufacturers like Pegatron.

That has recently become a contentious political issue, with President Donald Trump calling for Apple to bring manufacturing — and the jobs that come with it — back to the United States.

At the same time, Apple's overseas manufacturing has long been a target of criticism from some groups that point to workers' long hours and low wages.

Leaders in the tech industry say Apple has shifted its practices to address previous controversies over its factory workers in China. In March, Apple released its annual report looking at its manufacturing operations.

To see what the situation was like firsthand, Zeng went to work undercover in Pegatron's ChangShuo factory last summer, armed with a fellowship from NYU. The factory he worked at was profiled by the BBC in 2014 and Bloomberg in 2016, with the reporting focusing on whether some workers were forced to work overtime shifts.

Apple employees are on the ground at the Pegatron facility every day, an Apple spokesman told Business Insider.

Apple performed 16 audits at the ChangShuo Pegatron factory, finding that 99% of workweeks were under 60 hours, with the average workweek for people assembling Apple products clocking in at 43 hours. Wages at Pegatron have increased more than 50% over the last five years, and they are higher than the Shanghai minimum wage, the spokesman said. Pegatron didn't comment.

Zeng, who plans to work at a Chinese human-rights nonprofit when he graduates, said he believed a strike was imminent at the Pegatron plant when he went to work there. No strike happened, but Zeng got a look into the daily lives of factory workers who assemble iPhones.

Here's what he told Business Insider about his experience.

Kif Leswing: So what did you do? I'd love to hear about your day.

Dejian Zeng: At the beginning, I was assigned to the assembly line in the department called FATP, final assembling testing packing. We put the iPhone together.

One line might have about 100 stations. Each station does one specific thing. At the beginning, I work on iPhone 6S. And then after August, we are working on iPhone 7.

When I'm working iPhone 6S, I do two stations. One station at the beginning I did fastening speaker to housing.

What I did is that I put the speaker on the case, and I put a screw on it. The [iPhone] housing — we call it the back case — is moving on the assembly line, and that's when we pick it up, and now we get one screw from the screw feeder, and then we put it on the iPhone and then put it back, and it goes to next station.

Leswing: You were in charge of one screw?

Zeng: It's like, that's the work. I mean, it's simple, but that's the work that you do. Over, over, over again. For whole days.

Leswing: Did it drive you nuts?

Zeng: The first couple of days you're very concentrated because you couldn't catch up the speed of the assembly line. You need to be very quick to catch up. So you're very, very focused. It makes you very tired, but it keeps your mind on it. You have no time to think about things. I need to get quicker and quicker.

And then, after awhile, you get more familiar to it, and that in the end, I can even do this screw by closing my eyes. It is just like that. So after that, you get a lot of time that you have nothing to do. That's when people feel very annoyed. Because in the Pegatron factories, any kind of electronic devices are not allowed to be inside the factories.

It makes you very boring there because you can't listen to music. Sometimes workers talk with each other, random chats, but sometimes your line manager gets very upset by that. They say, "Keep your voice low."

Leswing: So when and where did you wake up every day?

Zeng: I wake up in a dorm shared by eight people. The dorm is not on the factory campus — it's in a place about 10 minutes drive, and they have a shuttle bus for us.

At the beginning, I would have work on the night shift. I wake up at 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m.

The assembly line starts working at different times. Some coworkers start working at 7:30 p.m., some workers at 8 p.m., some like 8:30 p.m, some at 9:30 p.m.

I started at 7:30 p.m, so I take the shuttle bus at 7 p.m., and then we start getting to the factory about 7:15 p.m.

After roughly two hours, you have a 10-minute break.

During the break, many people sleep. And it's kind of a struggle because this is not a very long time. And if you want a drink of water or if you want to go to the restroom, you need to walk out a huge workshop and then go to the restroom, and then come back in — takes about 10 minutes.Leswing: So the bathrooms are not around?

Zeng: It becomes a struggle when you're very sleepy but also you need to drink some water. You can only do one thing. It's just go to the restroom or come back and take some sleep.

Leswing: You just came back from a 10-minute break. What do you do now?

Zeng: After another two hours, we got a 50-minute break for lunch.

Generally, there are vegetables, meats, and sometimes it's like buns or noodles — and then basically it's like three vegetables, one meat, with rice. That's generally a meal.

Sometimes they have apples, pears, some fruits as additions to the meal.

The whole factory eats there. It's a huge canteen room.

If you have finished the meal earlier [than 50 minutes], you can take some sleep also. Sleep is really a thing in the factory. You can see that in the lounge — we have a lot of long sofas, but it's not really a very comfortable sofa. It's like you can feel the iron.

People just sit there and sleep. But you can't lay down. There are people walking around. If they see you lay down, they will swipe the ID and take a record of it. And they put the record in your profile. And then they will publish it to your whole assembly line, so your manager would come and yell at you later. Sometimes if it happens multiple times, they deduct money.

Leswing: How much money would they take if they caught you sleeping?

Zeng: It's not catching you sleeping — it's catching you laying. There are certain behaviors that you can't do. The same thing happens if you accidentally bring a phone into the factories. It's not even getting inside. It's like when you're past the metal detectors and it sounds and you pulled out your phone. You're on the record. Or your lighters. Any metal.

Leswing: Did you like the food, and were you charged for it?

Zeng: Yeah, we get charged for it, and it depends on what kind of food you choose. There are 5-yuan meals, 8-yuan meals. But that was inside the factories.

There are also restaurants inside the campus that people generally go eat at after they finish their work. Sometimes, if you're working on day shift, then that was more expensive. That was like up to 20 yuan, something like that.

Leswing: Was the food high-quality?

Zeng: I wouldn't say that. The chicken that I get ... I never see the breasts or thigh. It's always the neck or certain parts that you can't identify.

So I wouldn't say that's a very good meal. But it keeps you full, and you're very hungry, so it keeps you full anyway. It's reasonable. Not very good, but you have no other choice.

Leswing: Do you talk with people at lunch?

Zeng: If you are eating with your friends, sometimes you do. A lot of people just eat by themselves. You go get your meal, and then you eat, because it's like if you can eat it faster, you get more sleep.

After the lunch break, you work for two hours — two hours, and there is another 10 minutes in the middle of it.

Click here to read more in the Business Insider.

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