- Half of the world's iPhones are made at a sprawling Foxconn factory complex in Zhengzhou, China.
- It employs as many as 350,000 people and has spawned a mini city that residents have taken to calling "iPhone City."
- We spent a day in iPhone City, talking with residents, shop owners, and factory workers to hear about their lives.
- The story that emerged was one of low pay and long hours, but altogether not that different from other factories in China.
- Foxconn, the workers told us, is no better or worse than any of the other factories they had worked at.
- But few saw a way out of the grinding factory lifestyle in which they work six days a week, see their spouses once weekly if they are lucky, and frequently work dozens of hours of overtime.
If you use an iPhone, chances are it was made at a sprawling factory complex in Zhengzhou, China, a city of about 9.5 million people in what is historically one of the country's poorest provinces, Henan.
The factory, run by the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, employs about 350,000 people and produces about half of the world's iPhones. In the busy summer months before the fall release of a new iPhone, the factory produces 500,000 phones a day, or up to 350 a minute.
The Foxconn Zhengzhou Science Park is actually more than 20 miles outside downtown Zhengzhou, separated by freeways, suburbs, and dirt scrublands.
But with a workforce rivaling that of many US cities, the factory has sprouted what residents have dubbed "iPhone City." There, factory workers live in dorms in 10- or 12-story buildings outside Foxconn's gates, while a migrating workforce of entrepreneurs and vendors sets up shop below to make a living cooking street food, offering massages, or selling socks and other knickknacks.
"These places aren't like cities," Thomas Dinges, a senior principal analyst at the market-research firm iSuppli, told CKGSB Knowledge of the communities that form around Foxconn's factories, of which there are 12 in China. "They are cities."
We recently spent a day in iPhone City talking to factory workers, restaurant owners, and the many others whose lives are affected by Foxconn. Here's what it was like.
We got to the Foxconn Zhengzhou Science Park around 1 p.m., just after workers' lunch break. While a few workers milled around the gates, it was a ghost town — an eerie vibe for a factory that employs 350,000 of Foxconn's 1.3 million employees in China.
With 1.3 million employees in mainland China, Foxconn is by far the country's largest private employer.
Since it began producing iPhones for Apple in 2007, Foxconn has faced accusations of labor abuses, poor working conditions, and harsh penalties for workers who make mistakes.
There was a wave of suicides among Foxconn workers in 2010 and 2011, prompting Apple and Foxconn to make changes at the factories.
Another worker killed himself in January at the Zhengzhou factory. Because of the suicide — and reports that the factory had more aggressive security than some military compounds — I assumed we wouldn't be able to get in. To my surprise, we walked right past security into the campus.
Spanning more than 2.2 miles and dozens of buildings, the business park looks like any other. Trees are everywhere, police and security guards stand on every street corner, and workers on break camp out in the shade. A decade ago, this area had only dirt and fields of corn and wheat. In 2010, the government bought out local farmers, and the factory was up and running within the year.
The complex was built in 2010 — almost exclusively to serve Apple's iPhone production needs — with $600 million in assistance from the provincial government.
Even now, the government provides Foxconn with tons of support, tax incentives, and subsidies to keep production in Zhengzhou. It paved new roads to the factory, built power plants, helps covers energy and transportation costs, and pays bonuses to the factory for meeting export targets.
During the first two years of production, those bonuses totaled $56 million, The New York Times reported in 2016.
The government even helps recruit, train, and house workers for the factory during peak iPhone production periods. In the summer months, a speaker can be heard near the entrance saying: "We're recruiting the cream of society. Your personality must be optimistic, your work diligent."
Meeting Foxconn's never-ending need for workers requires considerable effort from the government. The province enforces quotas for the number of workers that local villages and cities must provide to the factory.
In 2016, state-owned coal companies lent workers to the factory. And last year, the Financial Times reported that trade schools were requiring students as young as 16 to work at the factory to gain "work experience" to graduate. In the run-up to the launch of the iPhone X, many students were found to be working overtime, which is illegal under Chinese law.
"Every city's department of labor and ministry of human resources is involved," Liu Miao, the head of a private recruiting center in Zhengzhou, told The Times in 2016.
Workers on the day shift begin streaming in through the factory's gates around 7 a.m. Those who can afford it ride motor scooters, but most walk from the nearby dorms or take a bus if they live in the buildings farther away.
The factory workers we spoke to — four in total — described their daily schedule:
- Wake up at 6:30 a.m.
- Head to the factory at 7 a.m.
- Eat breakfast and start working at 8 a.m.
- Take an hour for lunch. Most people eat at the canteen inside the campus, but some head to vendors outside because the food is better.
- The shift ends at 5 p.m., but if overtime is offered, most will take it and work until 8 or 10 p.m.
- After work, eat dinner with friends or play video games until 10 or 11 p.m. Then go to sleep.
The schedule is basically the same but flipped for those on the night shift.
Foxconn's iPhone factory in Zhengzhou does "final assembly, testing, and packaging," or FATP. That stage of manufacturing requires about 400 steps to assemble the iPhone. Most workers do one task repeatedly all day, such as polishing the screen, soldering one component, or fitting a single screw into the back of the phone.
One worker in charge of wiping a special polish onto the LCD screen told The Guardian that she handled 1,700 iPhones a day, or about three screens each minute for 12 hours a day.
Others with jobs like fastening chipboards may take up to a minute per iPhone, completing about 600 to 700 a day.
Foxconn employees we spoke to described work at the factory as mundane but hardly overwhelming — more boring and repetitive than anything else.
"The employees always say the people outside want a job," one employee told CNET. "And the people inside want to quit."
Source: New York Times
The complex has wide boulevards for the many buses bringing workers in and the freight trucks carrying products out. The provincial government made the campus into a "bonded zone," meaning the Chinese government views it as foreign soil. The arrangement allows Foxconn and Apple to virtually import and export goods to be sold in China or anywhere in the world.
The "bonded zone," a strange arrangement, is one of a slew of perks granted to Foxconn by the Zhengzhou government. The Times has a great exposé about how it works.
Most workers at the factory are between 18 and 25, though interns are as young as 16. Among the employees we saw over the course of a day, there was a fairly even split between men and women. Most come from Zhengzhou or villages around Henan, a province of 94 million people and one of China's poorest.
Just outside the entrance gate is a makeshift district of low-slung storefronts to serve factory workers who don't want to eat at Foxconn's canteen on campus. Many restaurant owners are former Foxconn employees or people from nearby villages who moved to capitalize on the new factory.
The alleyways of the makeshift village were deserted during the hot, dusty May afternoon. A vendor told us we had come during the tail end of the factory's low season. By the end of June, it's ramping up production for the release of a new iPhone in the fall. During those days, the vendor said, the workforce swells to 350,000, and the alleyways are packed.
We met Liu, a 31-year-old from Qianhoucun, an hour's drive from Zhengzhou. Liu and her husband have run one of the larger restaurants serving workers since the factory opened in 2010. "We don't make special food here," Liu told Business Insider. "We just make whatever is cheap and will fill the workers up."
Like many of her fellow vendors, Liu is from Henan and used to work at a Foxconn factory. When she was 18, she and her husband, who she had just met through a matchmaker, left their village to move to Shenzhen.
The two worked for several years at Foxconn's Longhua factory, once its largest complex. But when they heard the company was opening a factory closer to their lao jia, or hometown, they took their savings and opened a restaurant to serve the workforce.
"People like to work at this factory because you are close to your family if you are from Henan," Liu said. "You get Sundays off, and you can go home and visit your family. That's the perk."
Liu's son lives in Qianhoucun with Liu's parents. She and her husband see him once a week, on Sundays, when the factory is closed.
Many people who work at factories farther from their hometown see their families only twice a year, on Chinese New Year's and National Day.
Liu and the other vendors' lives move to the rhythms of the factory. Running a business catering to the factory's workers is harder than working at the factory, according to Liu. "We wake up earlier and go to sleep later so we can serve both day- and night-shift workers," she said.
The vendors open their restaurant early in the morning to cook breakfast for the day-shift workers.
After the lunch crowd leaves around 1 p.m., they clean up and sleep for a few hours. They reopen around 7 p.m. for dinner and the night-shift workers.
They stay open until the night workers' lunch at 1 a.m., then go to sleep around 3 a.m., after cleaning the restaurant. Most nights, Liu and her husband sleep only three or four hours.
Liu understands the appeal of working at Foxconn, where, she says, the pay is higher and there's less pressure.
Because there are tons of factory jobs and the work is repetitive, you don't have to think, she said — you just go to work and get paid.
"There's more pressure running your own business," she said. "I have to think about what I'm missing. I have to worry if business isn't good."
Liu worries a lot about business. This year, the factory seems quieter than usual, she said. Half of the businesses in the makeshift village are closed, as the district is scheduled to be demolished by the end of the year. But even with less competition, Liu and her husband are making a fraction of what they did in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Liu estimated that at this time of year, the factory usually has 120,000 employees. This year, she said, it seems like half of that.
By way of evidence, Liu motioned to trays of premade food behind a deli counter. Two years ago, she said, all that food would be sold in the half-hour after opening in the morning, even during the slow months. We were there around 2 p.m., after lunch, and the trays were still more than half full.
Liu used to be so busy that she had to have six full-time employees. Now she is down to two.
The threat of demolition has scared most vendors and restaurant owners out of the makeshift village. Many were afraid they would pay their landlord rent for the year and be unable to get it back when the trucks arrive, Liu said.
No one is positive what will replace the village, but Liu has heard rumors that the government wants to turn the scrublands around the factory into gardens. A new airport is situated next to the factory. No one wants to look at a shantytown and dirt when they fly in.
When we asked what Liu would do when the bulldozers came, she smiled as though we had asked about the weather.
"I guess we'll move somewhere else, set up our restaurant, and do the same thing," Liu said.
Every day, new workers show up to work at the factory. As we sat near the entrance of the campus, it seemed as if every few minutes a new person arrived via taxi or bus with a large suitcase and a shopping bag of food. Some come with a job secured, while others show up in hopes that nearby recruiting agencies can get them an interview.
Most of those arriving know about the factory's reputation for long hours and consistent overtime hours. There are tons of factories to work at in China. Many workers come to Foxconn specifically for the overtime, not in spite of it.
"Usually, workers don't come unless there is the opportunity for overtime," Liu explained. "They want the higher salaries."
While almost everyone in the area works for Foxconn, you can tell who works on production by the blue and red vests emblazoned with employee numbers. Foxconn workers told Business Insider that salaries at the factory started around 1,900 yuan ($300) a month.
The pay is so low that the Chinese government does not take out payroll taxes from factory workers' salaries, ABC News reported in 2012.
But according to workers we spoke to, Foxconn's pay is better than most other non-skilled jobs in China.
The pay at the Zhengzhou factory is lower than at the one in Shenzhen, but many employees prefer to work in Zhengzhou because it is closer to their hometowns and the cost of living is cheaper, they said.
Many workers can raise their monthly salaries to about $676 by taking on as much as 20 hours of overtime a week. Chinese law limits overtime to 36 hours a month, but several reports suggest that workers take on much more during peak production periods.
"Most people want to work overtime," said a 27-year-old factory worker whose family name is Zhang. "If you have something to do, maybe you don't do overtime. If you don't have anything to do, you'll probably work overtime."
After a 45-day probationary period, base salaries can rise to about $390 to $500. Still, the pay this year seem identical to the base wage at the factory included in a 2015 Recode report.
Workers who are willing to take on the night shift can see their monthly salary rise to as much as $785, including overtime.
The nonprofit Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior estimates that the living wage for iPhone workers should be around $650, meaning workers would need to take on tons of overtime to make ends meet.
At 5 p.m., the day shift ends, and workers stream out of the factory's gates. Because it is still the low season, there isn't that much overtime. The street becomes clogged with people, cars, motorbikes, and buses. Vendors set up shop along the road to get the business of the thousands heading home.
A short walk away is one of the sprawling dormitory complexes. There are at least a dozen 10- or 12-story apartment buildings. Small businesses that cater to the workers line the streets. "There is everything the workers could want in this area — food, massages, movies, everything," Ma, a 25-year-old masseuse from Zhengzhou who moved to the area last year, told Business Insider.
Like the makeshift restaurant district outside the factory's gates, the complex moves to the rhythm of the factory. When we walked in around 3 p.m., the area was deserted. Most of the shops were closed, and business owners were sleeping in the backs of their cars, taking a break before the end of the shift in a few hours.
Just a few hours later, the town sprang to life. Street vendors sold socks, smartphone cases, and clothes, and mobile-phone companies and banks offered services to workers getting off their shift.
Farmers from nearby villages try to sell their fruit and vegetables to the workers as well.
Ma said lower employment at Foxconn affected the livelihoods of those in the town. During the summer months, Ma said, she can't get a ticket to the movie theater because there are so many people. But now, everyone is struggling. "All of the businesses here are losing money until the workers get back in June," she said. "They can't afford the rent right now."
After work, people usually sit at a restaurant in the complex to eat dinner and drink beer with friends. At one of these restaurants, we met a group of four Foxconn workers who invited us to sit with them. We explained that we wanted to understand their lives.
"It's a simple life — just as simple as the village," Chen, a lanky, baby-faced 22-year-old from a village about an hour away, told Business Insider.
The others at the table were Zhang, a surly 27-year-old who spent most of his time fiddling with his smartphone; Hu, a 28-year-old woman married with two kids; and Guo, an affable 40-year-old with a set of pearly white fake front teeth.
Guo was an outlier. Most workers at the factory, they said, were in their 20s, giving it an almost collegiate atmosphere.
They had worked at the factory for about a year, except for Chen, who was coming up on his two-year anniversary — an eternity, he says. Most leave after a year.
"After a year, people get bored or disinterested," Chen said. "When that happens, they leave."
Chen and the others at the table aren't exactly friends. They all work on the same team, inventory control, making them "drinking buddies," Guo said. It's a pretty plum job compared with those stuck on the factory floor soldering components.
Chen and the others stock and check the phones after they are assembled and packaged.
But it's not as if they chose to do that. You don't apply for a particular role, just for a job at the factory. The department that needs people is where you get assigned.
"Our job is more relaxed," Chen said. "We can take breaks when we want. It's not the same for people on the assembly line."
But those workers have more opportunity for overtime — and a higher salary.
"Although they can make up to about 5,000 yuan per month, which is quite high in my eyes, I feel that these workers are not in good health because of all the overtime," one worker who makes 3,000 yuan (about $470) a month as a clerk told the South China Morning Post.
According to Chen, the worst job at the factory is the assembly line, where workers do the same task repeatedly for eight or 10 or 12 hours a day. Chen was on the assembly line at his previous job. It wasn't long before he grew to hate it.
"You do the same thing every day; it never ends," Chen said. "After a while, you get annoyed at the thing you are doing. You don't even notice it at first."
Chen added: "Eventually, I felt annoyed to the core of my heart. Like I had no purpose."
But Chen said he was lucky. Because he didn't have a family yet, he could leave his job and go after a better one. Many people on the assembly line, he said, have to provide for children. Leaving isn't really an option.
Zhang had little sympathy for those who don't like their jobs or complain about the overtime hours. He kept repeating: "If you want to do, do it. If you don't, leave. That's freedom. There are other jobs around."
It hadn't seemed to cross his mind that a better opportunity might mean doing a less monotonous job or that a higher salary would mean he — and others in his position — could afford to work fewer hours.
Guo finished his beer and excused himself to head to the factory. He works the night shift, which starts at 8 p.m.
Chen wasn't working at Foxconn when he was on the assembly line. He has been in the workforce for four years, going from factory to factory, moving when a new and better opportunity arises. Chen, like the others at the table, had done stints at other smartphone factories for Chinese manufacturers like Oppo or Xiaomi, at air-conditioning factories, and in construction.
When asked whether working at Foxconn was better or worse, Chen said: "The conditions are all the same. It's just making a living."
Chen's main post-work outlet seemed to be drinking. Over a few hours, he slugged back half a dozen or more pint-sized bottles of beer. Halfway through, he was slurring his words, while Zhang watched and fiddled with his phone.
Others, they said, play billiards at a bar nearby, sing at a karaoke lounge, play sports in the apartment complex, or play video games at one of the internet cafes. Cover at a club in the town might cost about $1.60, Australian Reseller News reported.
But everyone is different. Chen and Zhang were careful not to generalize. With a workforce the size of a small city, experiences vary, Chen explained.
Both Zhang and Chen play video games on their phone, usually the wildly popular Tencent mobile game Honor of Kings. But they have only enough time for a few rounds before they go to sleep around 10 or 11 p.m.
Like almost everyone, Chen and Zhang live in the dormitories. The provincial government spent about $1 billion building the housing to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of workers at the factory. And it looks as if it isn't done — we saw at least half a dozen buildings still under construction in the area we visited. And there are other dormitories on other sides of the factory campus.
Each dormitory room sleeps eight people with bunk beds. Rent is about $25 a month, while internet costs an additional $3. But because everyone works a different shift, the dorms rarely feel that crowded, Chen said.
Others have complained. A Foxconn employee at the Zhengzhou factory told the South China Morning Post in December that the alternating shifts meant it was hard for anyone to get a good night's sleep.
Living conditions have frequently been a point of contention for workers at Foxconn and other Chinese factories. In 2012, several employees rioted at a Foxconn factory to protest poor food and sanitation conditions and overcrowded dorms. One report said the dorms in Shenzhen reeked of rotting trash and sweat.
Those who hate the dorms or have a family can rent a one-bedroom apartment for about $65 a month. But few do.
Though Chen and Hu are both married, their spouses work elsewhere. Hu's husband works at a different factory in Zhengzhou, while Chen's wife works in his hometown. They see each other on Sundays and vacations.
Most workers eat breakfast and dinner at the restaurants near the dorms or the factory gates and lunch in the Foxconn cafeteria. The food is more or less the same — noodles, vegetables, and skewers of meat and fish. Meals on campus are slightly cheaper, at about $1. Food at the stalls or restaurants costs about $1.30 to $3.15, depending on the dish.
Zhang and Chen thought little about economic mobility or a brighter future. When we asked what they hoped for the future, Zhang shrugged. At 27, Zhang seemed to have resigned himself to his current situation. After pausing for a moment, he said, "Whatever opportunity is better, that's the future."
Chen spoke similarly.
"Life was very simple in the village. We never really thought about the future. We just played marbles," he said. "I have no idea how long I'll be here. One day, there may be a better opportunity. If there is, I'll take it."
That better opportunity didn't seem to be a promotion, a different career, or owning a business. In Zhang's and Chen's eyes, it was another factory job, albeit perhaps one that paid slightly better, was closer to home, or required fewer hours.
Zhang's and Chen's perspective is far from the only one. One worker told the South China Morning Post that he hoped to leave Foxconn within the year, using the skills he learned making phones to open a phone-repair shop. Others speak of opening their own business. In Shenzhen, considered by many to be China's Silicon Valley, there are stories of entrepreneurial factory workers who go on to start companies.
But for most, the dreams are simpler.
"I don't have many big dreams," one teenage Foxconn worker told the newspaper. "All I want is to be with the people I like and not worry about food and clothing."
Chen said that most people weren't just thinking of themselves when they go to work. They most likely have children or aging parents in the village who need assistance. If you are frugal, it is possible to save 75% of your salary to send home or put away for the future. But plenty of people spend it on beer and food, he said.
"We have 5,000 years of culture behind that," Chen said. "Of course I have to take care of my parents."
In numerous interviews, Foxconn workers described the factory as no worse than others in China, and in many cases better. Li, a quality-control checker on the iPhone assembly line in Zhengzhou, told the South China Morning Post that Foxconn was steadier than most other employers in China.
"Most of the Chinese factories out there have owners who would delay or even cancel payment of salaries," he said. "Here, I am sure of getting extra pay for working overtime."
Other reports don't portray life in the factory as rosy. Employees told CNET in 2012 that managers would often subject employees who made mistakes to public humiliation. The Guardian reported last year that if someone were to mess up, a manager could force them to prepare a formal apology to read to their coworkers.
Many have suggested that such practices create a culture of silence. And workers know they're easily replaceable — China has 99 million factory workers, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2009.
Zhang pushed back on the notion that workers' situation was bad.
"There's a lot of freedom in this job," he said. "If you don't like it, you leave. If you want a vacation, you leave. You just don't get paid. It's easy to leave. It's easy to get another job."
The harsh reality that emerged in our conversations with current and former workers was that Foxconn is neither the horrible exploiter that many Americans think it is nor the bastion of a well-treated labor force that Apple and Foxconn like to portray.
"This is the case for many subcontractors in electronics," Keegan Elmer, a representative for the Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization China Labour Bulletin, told Le Monde last year.
"The wages are low, the days very long, the conditions quite bad. The industry wears out employees very quickly and recruits nonstop. For low-skilled jobs, the use of trainees and temporary workers is massive."