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14 July 2017

Life and Death in Apple's Forbidden City

An assembly bench in Foxconn's Longhua complex in
Shenzhen, China, where iPhones are manufactured.
Photo:  Tony Law/Redux/eyevine
Life and death in Apple’s forbidden city
by Brian Merchant, The Guardian,
18 June 2017

In an extract from his new book, Brian Merchant reveals how he gained access to Longhua, the vast complex where iPhones are made and where, in 2010, unhappy workers started killing themselves

The sprawling factory compound, all grey dormitories and weather-beaten warehouses, blends seamlessly into the outskirts of the Shenzhen megalopolis. Foxconn’s enormous Longhua plant is a major manufacturer of Apple products. It might be the best-known factory in the world; it might also might be among the most secretive and sealed-off. Security guards man each of the entry points. Employees can’t get in without swiping an ID card; drivers entering with delivery trucks are subject to fingerprint scans. A Reuters journalist was once dragged out of a car and beaten for taking photos from outside the factory walls. The warning signs outside – “This factory area is legally established with state approval. Unauthorised trespassing is prohibited. Offenders will be sent to police for prosecution!” – are more aggressive than those outside many Chinese military compounds.

But it turns out that there’s a secret way into the heart of the infamous operation: use the bathroom. I couldn’t believe it. Thanks to a simple twist of fate and some clever perseverance by my fixer, I’d found myself deep inside so-called FoxconnCity.

It’s printed on the back of every iPhone: “Designed by Apple in California Assembled in China”. US law dictates that products manufactured in China must be labelled as such and Apple’s inclusion of the phrase renders the statement uniquely illustrative of one of the planet’s starkest economic divides – the cutting edge is conceived and designed in Silicon Valley, but it is assembled by hand in China.

The vast majority of plants that produce the iPhone’s component parts and carry out the device’s final assembly are based here, in the People’s Republic, where low labour costs and a massive, highly skilled workforce have made the nation the ideal place to manufacture iPhones (and just about every other gadget). The country’s vast, unprecedented production capabilities – the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that as of 2009 there were 99 million factory workers in China – have helped the nation become the world’s second largest economy. And since the first iPhone shipped, the company doing the lion’s share of the manufacturing is the Taiwanese Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, Ltd, better known by its trade name, Foxconn.

Foxconn is the single largest employer in mainland China; there are 1.3 million people on its payroll. Worldwide, among corporations, only Walmart and McDonald’s employ more. As many people work for Foxconn as live in Estonia.

Today, the iPhone is made at a number of different factories around China, but for years, as it became the bestselling product in the world, it was largely assembled at Foxconn’s 1.4 square-mile flagship plant, just outside Shenzhen. The sprawling factory was once home to an estimated 450,000 workers. Today, that number is believed to be smaller, but it remains one of the biggest such operations in the world. If you know of Foxconn, there’s a good chance it’s because you’ve heard of the suicides. In 2010, Longhua assembly-line workers began killing themselves. Worker after worker threw themselves off the towering dorm buildings, sometimes in broad daylight, in tragic displays of desperation – and in protest at the work conditions inside. There were 18 reported suicide attempts that year alone and 14 confirmed deaths. Twenty more workers were talked down by Foxconn officials.

The epidemic caused a media sensation – suicides and sweatshop conditions in the House of iPhone. Suicide notes and survivors told of immense stress, long workdays and harsh managers who were prone to humiliate workers for mistakes, of unfair fines and unkept promises of benefits.

The corporate response spurred further unease: Foxconn CEO, Terry Gou, had large nets installed outside many of the buildings to catch falling bodies. The company hired counsellors and workers were made to sign pledges stating they would not attempt to kill themselves.

Steve Jobs, for his part, declared: “We’re all over that” when asked about the spate of deaths and he pointed out that the rate of suicides at Foxconn was within the national average. Critics pounced on the comment as callous, though he wasn’t technically wrong. Foxconn Longhua was so massive that it could be its own nation-state, and the suicide rate was comparable to its host country’s. The difference is that Foxconn City is a nation-state governed entirely by a corporation and one that happened to be producing one of the most profitable products on the planet.

Continue reading this featured article:
www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/foxconn-life-death-forbidden-city-longhua-suicide-apple-iphone-brian-merchant-one-device-extract

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