Ahead of November’s Code Conference/Asia in Hong Kong, Walt Mossberg and Re/code staffers including senior editor Dawn Chmielewski checked out the scene in Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Here are a few stories we collected along the way. Expect more from us across Asia leading up to our conference.
Before a rash of suicides focused attention on Apple’s manufacturing suppliers, few people in America knew or even cared much about its giant contract manufacturer in China, Foxconn.
The Taiwanese supplier came in for even more unflattering attention in a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of working conditions inside these out-of-sight factories, where hundreds of thousands of anonymous workers assemble the iPhones and iPads that have made Apple the world’s most valuable publicly traded company.
Foxconn is eager to present a different face, and agreed to give Re/code a tour of a sprawling manufacturing facility in Shenzhen in the south China province of Guangdong were it makes iPads and Macs. To be clear, we were not allowed unfettered access. A special assistant to CEO Terry Gou traveled from Shanghai to escort us on a tour that appeared to paint a picture of workers being treated well. We weren’t permitted to observe the factory floor — an unidentified customer wouldn’t allow that.
Apple isn’t Foxconn’s only customer. The company, which is the largest private employer in mainland China with some 1.4 million workers, makes computer, communications and consumer products for some of the world’s best-known brands, which the company declines to publicly name.
The 1.4 mile-square Longhua complex, with its 140,000 employees, speaks to Shenzhen’s identity as a global manufacturing hub. The city, once a fishing village in the Pearl River Delta region, was designated as a special economic zone in 1980. Its population swelled from 30,000 to more than 10 million as rural workers migrated to the fast-growing city in search of opportunity.
Nondescript white factory buildings, not far from Foxconn’s entrance, are streaked in rust and grime and enclosed by walls — giving the place an institutional feel (minus the concertina wire). But this is a far cry from the Dickensian conditions of other factories in the Guangdong province I’ve visited in the past. That distinction goes to the garbage-strewn, crumbling Hao Wei Metal Plastic Manufactory that once made miniature figurines of Mickey Mouse and other iconic characters for The Walt Disney Co.
Still, visible from the rooftop at Foxconn is a jarring reminder of past tragedy: Netting erected to prevent suicidal workers from hurling themselves to their deaths.
It’s a problem Foxconn can’t shake. As recently as last fall, a 24-year-old Foxconn assembly line worker, Xu Lizhi, committed suicide by jumping from an off-campus building. He left behind poetry lamenting the monotonous, exhausting work.
Foxconn spokesman Louis Woo said that since 2010, when a dozen of its workers ended their lives by throwing themselves off rooftops, the company has worked with experts to address the problem. (Though Woo notes, by way of context, that 12 suicides per one million employees is lower than the U.S. suicide rate of 13 per 100,000 — a statistic Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs once cited in defense of the factory.)
“Suicide is a very complex event. There’s not just one thing [to fix] and there’s no more suicide,” Woo said. “Any large institution — you will always suffer from that statistical occurrence, no matter what you do. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to do anything.”
Woo said the nets have been set up to prevent deadly impulsive acts.
“If you can stop that impulse, even for 30 seconds — the person has to struggle for 30 seconds to open the window — they will change their mind,” Woo said.
For workers who suffer from clinical depression, Foxconn offers mental health counseling and a 24-hour hotline at its care center. This support system was put in place years after a consulting group, Business for Social Responsibility, originally proposed setting up worker hotlines in 2006 so that employees could report abusive working conditions or seek help, the New York Times reported.
Woo says the hotline handles about 1,000 calls a day — though only seven counselors are visible through glass cubicles during our midday visit to the Foxconn Labor Union and Care Center.
A woman dressed in a business suit greets us at the door of the union, which, like others in China, belongs to the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions. This is a company-run organization that Woo said is nonetheless empowered to stop production lines if workers report safety issues. The shiny chairs and the spotless, highly polished floors in the waiting room suggest either a fastidiousness that would rival Disneyland — or a sign that this place is not highly trafficked.
Foxconn has made other adjustments to adapt to the needs of a younger generation of workers, who come to the factory with a different set of expectations than the rural farmers who preceded them and considered assembly line work “heaven,” Woo said. The company opened factories in Zhengzhou and Chengdu, in central China, and in Guiyang, in southern China, so assembly line workers could remain close to their support networks of friends and family and avoid feelings of isolation that can have dire consequences.
Living conditions often are a flashpoint for Chinese manufacturers, with inferior food, poor sanitation and overcrowded dorms sparking a riot in 2012 at one Foxconn factory in Taiyuan in northern Shanxi province. One undercover report from that period described squalid conditions at the dorms in Shenzhen, which smelled of rotting trash and sweat.
In his tour of the Shenzhen facility, Woo sought to portray the dormitories as akin to college campuses — with up to eight people per room. We entered one first-floor room (without obtaining the occupants’ permission, according to our translator) where four roommates occupy identical metal bunk beds, with thin mattress and mosquito netting on top, and a desk and storage underneath. A handful of garments hung from a rod suspended between the beds as a makeshift closet. It’s hardly ornate, but it didn’t give off a scent of rot, either.
As we leave the dorm, we observe amenities that would not be out of place on a campus: An outdoor track with bleachers and people relaxing on the trimmed grass, and one of five pools where, despite temperatures in the mid-70s, no one was observed taking laps. The turtleneck-clad Woo said the facility is closed, due to the winter-like weather.
Elsewhere on the campus, a handful of guys play PC games in a darkened Internet cafe illuminated by colorful neon lights, adjacent to the movie theater. It’s a nod to the average age of the Foxconn employee, which is 18 to 25 — though interns as young as 16 can work here as well, under certain conditions, Woo says. In the back are privacy cubicles, which we later learned is where workers watch porn.
The Internet cafe is located on a tree-lined main street, with fast food restaurants, cafes, banks and other shops. It’s reminiscent of the company towns of a bygone era in American history, when the employer would provide its workers housing, goods and services (often at prices that, at least in the U.S. at the turn of the last century, were deemed excessive). Woo said Foxconn’s dorms and shops are independent businesses, and workers are free to live off campus.
The centerpiece of the tour — one that featured a prominent poster of Gou himself — is Foxconn University. The poster articulates the seven traits for success, including a willingness to work, three hearts (responsibility, motivation, ambition) and work ethic. Woo said some 1.5 million students have completed their trade education at the school since 2007. “Our No. 1 priority is to provide better working conditions and salaries to our workers,” Woo said, as we toured the campus in a golf cart. “Changing perceptions is secondary.”
Woo acknowledges that there’s only so much that can be done to address the monotony of assembly line work — and the demand for precision by Foxconn’s customers. “I don’t want to gloss over the difficulties of manufacturing,” he said. “There is a lot of repetition.” That’s why Gou has invested in automation and robotics, with the goal of converting 40 percent to 50 percent of the assembly process to machines.
Such improvements would seemingly have the added benefit of controlling costs and enhancing Foxconn’s competitive edge.
Under the glare of international media attention and customer scrutiny, Foxconn has raised its base wage from a reported $153 a month to a starting salary of $306 for a 40-hour week — with pay increasing to $402 after a three-month probationary period. It also restricted overtime hours to no more than 60 per month.
Meanwhile, another Apple supplier, Pegatron outside of Shanghai, has attracted the attention of the international press. A BBC hidden-camera investigation showed workers falling asleep during 12-hour shifts assembling iPhone 6s. Apple senior vice president of operations Jeff Williams issued a response, calling the report “deeply offensive” and articulating the way the company is working to improve working conditions.
Apple declined to comment on supplier relationships.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.