Would US workers really want the jobs that have gone to China?
People making iPhones in Foxconn’s ‘stressful’ Shenzhen factories earn less than a quarter of the pay for similar work in America
American firms that moved jobs to China were harshly criticised in a US documentary made five years ago that alleged iPhone maker Apple had just 26,000 employees in the US but had created 700,000 jobs in China.
Death by China, produced and directed by economist Peter Navarro, and based on his book of the same name, matters now because US president-elect Donald Trump has named Navarro as his chief trade policy adviser.
As director of the Trump White House’s newly created National Trade Council, Navarro will be tasked with bringing jobs back to America. But do Americans want the kinds of jobs offered by Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier in China?
Foxconn, a Taiwanese firm, employs more than a million workers in mainland China to assemble iPhones and other gadgets and has been accused by the Hong Kong-based group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour of running sweatshops and treating workers like machines.
It has held talks with US state governments over the years about opening factories in America, but it also plans to fully automate all its factories eventually, so arguments about jobs might prove moot.
Asked in Guangzhou last month whether any US plans were in the pipeline, Foxconn founder Terry Gou said he planned to wait and see how the new Trump administration bedded in, before making any decisions.
“To set up factories in US or not? I have no idea right now, as the new government has not come in yet,” he said.
Xi Song, a 28-year-old migrant worker from Henan province who has been working at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen for more than five years, said he doubted American workers would put up with the same conditions, which he described as “physically and psychologically stressful”.
“I expect their working conditions should be a lot better than ours,” he said.
Foxconn is known for its highly disciplined and high-pressure working environment. Nets were installed around its staff dormitories after a spate of worker suicides in 2010.
“Foxconn is all about execution,” Xi said. “The pressure to meet that production goal is from the top down. It’s intense and there are only two breaks of 10 minutes each in every shift, excluding lunch. You have to calculate your toilet time.
“American workers must be stronger than us in terms of physical power, but I’m still not sure they can do what we do here.”
Xi said those who failed to meet production targets were often forced to stay back for disciplinary lectures.
However, a Foxconn spokesperson said in a statement that all operations were guided and audited based on the company’s code of conduct on social and environmental responsibility, which met the standards of leading global corporations.
“Working hours and schedules, including regular work breaks and rotation of assignments, for employees at our facilities are in accordance with all relevant laws and regulations,” the spokesperson said.
“Foxconn will continue to invest in and maintain our significant workforce of around one million employees in China, including around 223,000 employees in our Longhua and Guanlan campuses in Shenzhen.”
Gong Ping, a 29-year-old from Hunan province, has been working at Foxconn’s huge Longhua compound for the past two years, assembling iPhones.
“You do the same old, monotonous task non-stop for 10 hours a day,” he said, still dressed in his dark blue uniform as pounded away on a computer keyboard on a keyboard in an internet cafe near the compound, his dull eyes fixed to the screen.
Gong said he always felt exhausted after finishing a 12-hour shift, including overtime, and that playing computer games in the internet café, which cost three yuan an hour, was his favourite way of relaxing after work.
He said his base salary was 3,000 yuan a month, and even with the extra hours he never earned more than 4,500.
Inside Foxconn’s 3 sq km walled compound in Longhua stretch block after block of squat, grey factory buildings where more than 200,000 workers toil away producing some of the world’s most sought after electronic gadgets.
Their work lives are tightly bound by invisible red tape, and the challenging deadlines push many to resign.
“It is a modern workplace. Everything looks good on the surface but Foxconn shows zero tolerance over mistakes,” said former Foxconn worker Li Hua, 30, from northern Guangdong.
“My fingers would always be completely numb in the first few weeks after finishing each shift and my shoulders would be extremely tight and painful,” he said, adding that he used to process at least 13,000 iPhone earphones a day.
Li said he resigned recently.
“They never fire people, unless they’re caught smoking or fighting, but they force you to resign after you have passed your probation period,” he said.
Li said the security was particularly tight at Foxconn in order to prevent the premature release of details of new products. At the beginning of every shift, workers had to walk through two scanners to ensure no smartphones or metal items, including watches and earrings, were taken into the plant. All the windows in the factories were sealed to ensure that no secrets leaked out.
“There are tailors around the plants who specialise in altering jeans because even metal zippers and buttons on jeans are not allowed in,” Li said. “You must have them changed to plastic ones or wear something else.”
He added that during slow months workers were sometimes required to participate in military-style marching drills in the compound, which were led by their line leaders.
According to the US Department of Labour’s Bureau of Labour Statistics, the mean hourly wage of electrical, electronics and electromechanical assemblers is US$16.14 an hour, with a mean annual income at US$33,570.
Most Foxconn workers interviewed reported an average salary of about 4,500 yuan a month, meaning the average US worker assembling electrical parts would get paid more than four times as much.