In 2010, 18 young workers at Foxconn factories in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen tried to commit suicide by jumping off the roof, according to researchers. Fourteen died and three survived. The youngest jumper was aged 17.

The spate of suicides sparked a decade-long investigation by the team of researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. This led to a book, Dying for an iPhone, written by Jenny Chan, Mark Selden and Pun Ngai and published this summer.

iphone apple china
Apple store in Beijing in April 2018. Photo: Jenny Chan.

Foxconn Technology Group, a giant Taiwanese company with strong ties in China also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry, is one of Apple’s largest suppliers. The two companies have been linked since 2000, when Foxconn won a contract to manufacture the iMac desktop computer. According to Bloomberg, it is one of the largest employers in the world during the peak production period for the iPhone, employing up to 1 million workers as of 2018.

Undercover investigations

Over the course of ten years, academic and co-author Jenny Chan and a team of Chinese student researchers infiltrated 12 Foxconn factories, where they interviewed workers and human resources and product managers. The team conducted field research at over a quarter of Foxconn’s facilities, including the Longhua and Guanlan factories in Shenzhen and one in Chengdu. Foxconn currently operates 40 manufacturing sites in mainland China.

Chan and her team went undercover at Foxconn factories, donning the company uniform and borrowing staff cards to assess conditions in venues such as workers’ canteens and dormitories, and some production workshops.

However, they managed to gain only limited access. “There were many workshops that were guarded by security officers and security gates,” Chan told HKFP. “If you were found with any electronic device that could record footage, you were not allowed to go in. The security was indeed very high within the Foxconn factory.”

Foxconn Shenzhen Longhu
Foxconn Longhua factory in Shenzhen. Photo: Jenny Chan.

To get an accurate picture of conditions on the production lines, the Chinese student researchers applied for jobs. They shed light on how rising demand for products directly affected Foxconn workers, who were made to work around the clock to meet them.

Researchers found that Foxconn sometimes pushed employees to work up to 12-hour shifts for seven days a week, with one day off per month.

Corporate Irresponsibility

“This is a violation of Chinese labour laws,” Chan told HKFP. “[This] was a very important finding because both Foxconn and its international buyers all have so-called ‘supplier codes of conduct’.”

“Even though these companies claim they are highly responsible for workers’ well-being and respect workers’ rights, this turns out to be not true.”

Chan said the investigation found that Foxconn workers were being exploited to fulfill Apple’s obligations to its investors. “They are all maximising their profits and hold themselves accountable to their shareholders. They care less about the workers,” she said.

“What we want to do with this book is also to make these companies more accountable for workers’ dignity, health and safety.”

SACOM protest foxconn workers rights
Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior campaign protests in June 2010. Photo: Jenny Chan.

Chan said it was not acceptable for Apple for hide behind the fact that Foxconn workers are not their direct employees. “It’s not just about your employees. It’s also about the workers who are producing products with your logo. You are connected but you use outsourcing to… shift the responsibility to the suppliers.”

In 2013, after their first round of research, the team sent letters to Foxconn and Apple, asking them to respond to their findings. They were met with blanket replies. “They were just doing PR with their responses. They copy and pasted their corporate social responsibility reports. They gave us very standardised responses,” Chan said.

Time is money

Chan says working conditions have not significantly improved in the ten years since their research began. “There were a few manipulations of union elections at Foxconn and the schedules are still really tight. Time is money. If Apple fails to launch the new MacBook while competitors are able to do that, they lose money.” 

Competitive pressures have in the past endangered the lives of workers on the shop floor at Foxconn’s factories. In May 2011 an explosion at Foxconn’s iPad factory in Chengdu, when aluminium dust was ignited by an electrical spark, killed four workers and injured dozens of others. The proliferation of aluminium dust before the explosion also adversely affected workers’ health.

In December 2011 another explosion at an iPhone factory in Shanghai injured 61 workers. Many suffered life-altering disabilities.

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Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior protest in November 2017. Photo: SACOM.

To Chan, these are examples of the real human costs of the race to deliver new Apple products as quickly as possible. “Why do explosions happen? Because safety rules are ignored and you just work, work, work. You don’t monitor the workplace,” she said.

Other injuries occur routinely on production lines. Some employees told Chan they work without gloves because they can assemble the products faster with their bare hands.

Destroying futures

Another, more insidious, manifestation of Foxconn’s maltreatment of its workers is its internship programme. Young students from across mainland China are recruited under the guise of interns, but are made to work the same hours as regular workers, effectively becoming even cheaper, temporary workers to meet seasonal demand.

“Student interns are doing the same 12-hour shifts to assemble the iPhone,” Chan said. “It’s a very worrying phenomena. You are destroying their futures. They are not learning. These are not meaningful internships.”

Chan dedicated one chapter of the book to these dummy internships. She said she hopes Foxconn and its clients can adopt a more humane production model.

‘Clear progress’

Foxconn told HKFP in an emailed statement that it strives to “comply with all relevant laws and regulations across all our operations”.

It said it was continuously working with health and human resources experts and labour unions to improve working conditions. “We work hard to provide our employees with a positive working environment…” it said. “This work is also influenced by valuable feedback we regularly receive from our employees and partners on all aspects of our operations.”

The group referred to its Employers Assistance Program, which provides free on-site counselling services and a 24-hour hotline for all workers.

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Workers outside a Foxconn facility in Shenzhen. Photo: Sina

Foxconn said any overtime is voluntary and cited a “competitive compensation structure” for its workers. “The wages paid all employees in our facilities are in compliance with the relevant laws and regulations, and they exceed mandated wage levels for each position in each location where we operate,” it read.

The company said it takes allegations of employee abuses seriously. “If we are alerted to any possible violations, we carry out an investigation and then work equally hard to take action to correct them if those reports are found to have merit.”

HKFP reached out to Apple multiple times for comment but had not received a reply at time of writing.

Creating an alliance

Referring to the Foxconn statement, Chen told HKFP she did not see any workers taking such services seriously in the course of her research. She said the lack of anonymity for people who use such services may lead workers to avoid them for fear of losing their jobs.

China’s official trade unions are seen as part of the problem. They must be affiliated to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which answers to the ruling Communist Party. As such, unions effectively ensure that production in the country runs smoothly and prevent any strikes or protests.

SACOM iSlave banner
SACOM iSlave banner. Photo: SACOM

Against these challenges, Chan said the book’s ultimate aim is to make consumers fully informed about where their devices come from, and the conditions in which they are made.

“This is a book that hopes to make a connection… between consumers… and workers. We want to understand the connection between production and consumption,” she said. “So it’s not just about them (the workers). It’s as much about us. How we envision more sustainable models where workers will not be pushed to the brink of depression and… lose hope for a better future.”  

The double meaning in the book’s title urges consumers to reflect on how their craving for faster and better technology affects those who are producing it.

Chan said she hopes that, through exposing abuses that continue at Foxconn factories, large tech companies like Apple and others will also be held accountable.

Correction 31.08.20: A previous version of this article stated that there were 21 attempted suicides at Foxconn factories in 2010. This has been corrected to 18.

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.