Another look at Apple's China operations

No personal interaction between workers ... and free medical care, soccer fields and a library.

Published June 15, 2006 8:49PM (EDT)

(From time to time, I like to highlight particularly interesting letters that bear directly on this blog's themes. Yesterday's post on Apple's iPod Nano factory sparked the following comment from a recent visitor to China. I don't know much about the letter writer, other than that he calls himself a former software executive, and signs his posts "borduins.")

"I have no experience with Foxconn. I have, however, been to the factory that assembles (or so they claim) all of the world's Apple computers (and many other brands besides). This visit was a profoundly thought-provoking event for me, but not in a way that generated real moral clarity for me on globalization issues.

"The work force in this 'factory' (actually, a huge multi-building factory complex) consisted predominantly of young Chinese women, mostly, we were told, from rural and western China. They were hired only after a rigorous process that included testing of psychological makeup (looking for 'teamwork mentality') and motor skills. We were told that about four out of every 100 applicants tested was hired. Women, we were told, were the majority of the workers selected because they tended to exhibit better fine motor skills and lower need for individual expression.

"It was a stunning sight to walk into one floor of this factory complex, the size perhaps of one or two football fields, and see dozens of assembly lines, each staffed by hundreds of uniformed young women seated perhaps two feet apart. The floor literally smelled like people. Each worker had an assigned task, lasting no more than a few seconds as the assembly line moved. There was no talking or personal interaction between the workers on the job at all -- I assume that it was forbidden. There were two breaks, and an hour lunch, each day. Each worker was carefully monitored for mistakes, and too many mistakes within a given time frame were grounds for immediate termination. The jobs they were doing looked, as almost all assembly line jobs look to me, deadly boring.

"We were told that overtime was voluntary, with a limit of 12 hours daily, and that most workers worked maximum hours. I no longer have my notes on compensation, but I recall doing some mental math that individual workers were making $1,500 to $3,500 annually, depending on position, overtime, and bonus. Average family income in rural China is around $600, and we were told that half or more of the worker's compensation was typically sent home to families. Most workers lived on campus in clean, subsidized, well kept facilities that looked like college dorms, albeit somewhat more cramped. Food and medical care were free. There were soccer fields, exercise rooms, literacy classes, a library, and company stores offering various goods. The atmosphere overall was college campus-like, with overtones of paternalism (for instance, lots of signs encouraging literacy as the path to the future, etc). The CEO spoke extensively of the need for his workers to see this as a 'starter' job, the purpose of which was to launch them to the next phase of their careers.

"We were invited to attend the company's Chinese New Year celebration. Held in the massive company cafeteria, it was an amazing experience. The celebration consisted of six hours (at least) of speeches, comedy, karate exhibitions, karaoke (very popular), dance, and other miscellaneous entertainments, almost all by the workers themselves. Everyone seemed to being enjoying themselves immensely.

"As I said earlier, I left with no absolute conclusions. I would hate to have to do an assembly line job of the kind I witnessed. On the other hand, if the alternative was working seven days a week on the family farm for no compensation, with no hope for the future, I might see such a job as the best alternative short of winning the lottery. Also, the efficiency and overall automation of the factory amazed me -- it was the most modern factory I'd ever seen. The Chinese are clearly building competence in manufacturing that goes well above and beyond cheap labor.

"I can't say how representative this factory complex is of Chinese facilities in general. I can say that reflexive judgments of outsourcing as 'exploitation' or 'opportunity creation' don't do justice to the full range of motivations present in both management and line-level employees. If there is any lesson I took away in the end, it was to avoid applying my filters, my biases, to someone else's experience."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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