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By the Numbers: Life and Death at Foxconn

A look at working conditions at the manufacturing giant that produces nearly half of the world’s consumer electronics.

Workers inspect motherboards on a factory line at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen on May 26, 2010. (Voishmel/AFP/Getty Images)

March 16: This article has been updated and corrected.

Update: On March 16, This American Life retracted an episode about Apple and Foxconn that featured Mike Daisey, a performer who created a critically acclaimed one-man show based on his research on Apple and Foxconn. Daisey has admitted to fabricating parts of his account of his visit to China.

We've removed the one number from our list that relied solely on Daisey's account; the other numbers below are based on news sources, including Ira Glass's own interview with a labor expert.

An investigative series by the New York Times and a performance piece by Mike Daisey featured on This American Life have put the spotlight on Foxconn, the Taiwanese company whose massive Chinese factories manufacture some of the world's most popular consumer electronics.

As well as working with companies like Dell, Motorola, Nokia and Hewlett-Packard, Foxconn assembles popular Apple products like the iPhone and iPad.

Here's a quick look at what we know about Foxconn. (The company disputes workers' accounts of abusive conditions. In a 2010 company report, Foxconn said it promotes "employee respect, an atmosphere of trust, and personal dignity.")

Working for Foxconn

1.2 million: number of workers employed by Foxconn in China, according to the New York Times.

40: Estimated percent of the world's consumer electronics manufactured by Foxconn.

7: seconds it takes Foxconn's workers to complete a single step of their work, according to a survey cited by the New York Times.

12: Hours in a typical work shift, according to interviews with Foxconn employees.

83.2: Average hours of overtime worked each month, according to a 2010 survey of Foxconn employee.

91: cases of underage labor found by Apple's audits of its suppliers in 2010, the year Daisey visited China.

3,000: number of workers Foxconn could hire overnight, according to Apple's former worldwide supply demand manager.

10-20: percent estimated monthly turnover in Foxconn's workforce.

$7,500: amount founder Terry Gou used to start the anchor company of Foxconn Technology Group in 1974, according to the company website.

$5.7 billion: Terry Gou's estimated net worth as of March 2011.

Living Conditions

230,000: number of workers at "Foxconn City" in Shenzhen, according to the New York Times.

13: tons of rice prepared each day at the central kitchen at Foxconn City.

$0.65: meal allowance for dinner at the Foxconn City canteen in 2010.

2: number of free swimming pools there, according to The Telegraph, which noted that the pools "are said to be quite dirty."

70,000: number of workers at Foxconn's Chengdu plant who live in company dorms, according to the New York Times.

20: number of employees sometimes packed into a three-room apartment.

200: Reported number of police officers who responded to a Foxconn dormitory riot.

Deaths

17: Number of reported suicides of Foxconn workers in China between 2007 and February 2011, according to Wired. Eleven workers died after jumping off buildings in the Foxconn Campus in Shenzhen, which were then draped with preventive netting. (Wired noted that the rate actually seems to be below China's national averages.)

70: number of psychiatrists employed by Foxconn to prevent suicides, according to a 2010 announcement by CEO Terry Gou.

100: Estimated number of employees at a Foxconn factory in Wuhan who stood on the roof of a factory building this month to protest working conditions and wages. Several threatened to commit suicide, according to the New York Times.

$450: monthly salary a worker involved in that protest said employees had been promised for moving from the Foxconn campus in Shenzhen to one in Wuhan.

34: continuous hours a Foxconn employee worked in 2010 before he collapsed and died, according to media reports.

4: workers killed last year by an explosion at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China that assembles iPads.

$22: approximate daily salary earned by Lai Xiaodong, a 22-year-old college graduate, working at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China, according to the New York Times.

$150,000: approximate amount the company wired Lai's family after he was killed in the aluminum dust explosion.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited performer Mike Daisey's account of interviewing a 13-year-old worker outside the Foxconn plant in Shenzen. Daisey's Chinese translator says this interview never happened.

The sins of industry cannot continue to be tolerated. If Regulatory mechanisms are not upheld and beyond America’s Regulatory reach then perhaps it is about time to bring back these overseas jobs here in Virginia, California, Texas and the rest of the East and West coast.

And the embarrassing thing is that the companies benefitting from these conditions stand around wagging fingers and claiming they can’t do anything, whereas they obviously can stipulate in the contract that they’ll give less money for every report of bad conditions seen by their own unannounced auditors.

And it’s bad.  I work for a company that (annoyingly) manufactures in Donguang, a similar anti-Disney of industrialization.  When we send our managers down there to help, investigate, or otherwise work with the folks down there?  Well, they recently had the privilege of standing around ice-cold factories (because the ventilation is a pair of doors) and tiny, nearly-icy apartments.  If that’s how they treat American management, I’m guessing the Chinese workers aren’t getting the honeymoon suite.

I understand paying them less.  That makes sense (you could destroy the Chinese economy paying them American wages), but the conditions are terrible, and thankfully my bosses have been working to at least fix them in our factories.

Now, if we can just increase the load on the American factories (which we own and use) a little more…

It’s a shame.  I was raised to look forward to the end of industrialism and factory jobs, because they’d be replaced with small, non-polluting, automated centers, increasing everybody’s standard of living.  We got the former, but just exported the pollution and dangerous jobs instead.

It’s also a shame that nobody has a “humanitarian index” for products.  I might not care what kind of fish I “should” eat, and price trumps how happy my cows were raised before slaughter, but I would definitely factor in the number of people who died manufacturing a given computer.

John - Your “humanitarian index” idea is novel, and could be like parental warning stickers on CDs or nutrition labels. However, you simultaneously argued against the idea because of your dismissal of animal rights as an important factor. That’s the problem. Most Americans know very well the we use sweatshop labor to buy our products more cheaply, and for lots of them, price trumps how happy the workers are when they made the product. So what’s important then? What’s the standards? If animals caged and tortured shouldn’t make us upset, why should employed people with a place to live and food to eat tug our heartstrings and wallets? We’re spending less and less money on food, and more on entertainment technology, but do you think people will really choose to pay more if their iPod was humanitarian-approved?

@stefan: I agree that animal rights is an important issue, NO LIVING BEING SHOULD BE TORTURED.

I believe that it is perfectly moral to value people over cattle. A “humanitarian index” should improve animal rights, not harm them. If I do not value human beings how can I ever truly value the life of a factory chicken?

Shorter version: Human rights are a precursor to animal rights.

All that happens when the west gets “tough” with these manufacturers is that they acquire a real factory and a show factory. The show factory is up to western standards and the real one is worse than the ones the west was complaining about. In other words, the abuses just go underground. It’s up to the workers and their supporters in their own country to take a stand, not for us to be the arbiters of decency while demanding the cheapest manufacturing costs in the world. That’s just hypocrisy.

Where true sweatshop conditions exist, such as the garment industry in New York, there have never been suicides. Yet at France Telecom with a 35 hour work week and union negotiated wages there have been 60 suicide attempts with a reported 30 deaths, That’s much higher than Foxconn. Why is this never mentioned? Too many want to rush to judgement and blame someone rather than find the cause of these deaths.

Foxconn made a mistake designing he electronics assembly lines putting concentrating workers too close together allowing Subliminal Distraction to be created. The problem was discovered when it caused mental beaks for office workers forty years ago. The cubicle was designed to block peripheral vision stopping it by 1968. A pair of safety glasses with wide temple arms, opaque or blacked out, would stop the suicides for pennies in China.

Foxconn uses cubicles in engineering offices in Korea but did not understand whey they must be used. I reached Foxconn but the language barrier prevented effective communication. Apple would not reply to my letter. Mike Daisey was informed but continues to spread the lie that the problem is employee abuse.

Video and pictures from TV news crews posted on-line show the problem in both countries is Subliminal Distraction exposure. Visit VisionAndPsychosis_Net and click the links at the top of the Home page. The “Letters” page, seventh link down, is a simple presentation of the unrealized history of this problem.

We live by example. I am really tired of the CHEAP crap that is coming out of CHiNA and elsewhere to make profits for fewer and fewer people whether in CHINA or US. Labor is devalued in the US and it is dehumanized in CHINA. The big promo is that AMerico’s go overseas for cheap labor, but they also get away from pesky safety regulations and using safe materials in manufacture. I am really tired of the JUNK that is being sold in our stores. And now tht the economy is in such bad shape, I am buying less and less of the cheap and looking for the value. The idea, that people are being treated so badly, so that I can buy a cheaper shirt is abhorrent to me. I will find a way to channel my money better. The ppl in CHINA need help to unionize and less americo indoctrination.

@L K Tucker

Do you understand that suicides are not the total sum of the problem? Do you understand that mistreatment, very low pay and an atmosphere of fear is the problem. You may fix the suicides with “cubicle engineering” but the major problems remain.
Ergonomics my ass.

The workers of the western world should not be forced to compete with a subjugated work force. A person that works a full time job should be able to buy a house and feed a family. A worker should have leisure time and the money to enjoy leisure time. A worker should not die young from exposure to toxins. A worker should have a fairly apportioned voice in his/her government. A worker should have rights protecting him against imprisonment for dissension. A worker should have the right to organize.

The idea that you can fix the FoxConn issue by rearranging the workspace is ludicrous. You are attempting to marginalize the larger issues by suggesting that the workers could be so easily turned into successful automatons with the aid of better programming is absolutely freaking disgusting. Culture smulture; simple human decency is a world wide standard

@L K Tucker

Correction:
You are attempting to marginalize the larger issues by suggesting that the workers could be so easily turned into successful automatons with the aid of better programming, that is absolutely freaking disgusting. Culture smulture; simple human decency is a world wide standard.

“Free Trade” is not fair trade.

This article tells the whole story..
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10779022

“The company said it believed it had eliminated child labour among its final assembly suppliers.” That is industry code for “The company said it believed it had successfully hidden child labour among its final assembly suppliers.”

Why does a Google search for “Subliminal Distraction exposure” always lead back to the site shown in the comment from L K Tucker??

Yellowdog,

You missed the point. Activists I contacted in Hong Kong do not want to stop the deaths they want an issue to argue. It would cost almost nothing to prevent these suicides. The issue of wages and living arrangements can be negotiated. You can’t bring back those dead workers.

The same thing is true of college suicides here. Schools I have written won’t investigate to stop student suicides. If they prove Subliminal Distraction is the long sought cause of student deaths they also prove the school is responsible for all of them.

You should recognize that the shame of all of it is that this problem was discovered and solved over forty years ago.

OMG we should stop worrying about Chinese workers since… what’s the big difference of getting paid $100 and livin in a country where meals are $0.65 or get paid $1000 and live where meals are $6.5? They dont even seek for better life cause they dont even know what ‘is’ a better life. We should mind our own business and leave Chingchongs as world’s factory.

When the issues of “Chinchong” (your term, not mine) affect human beings it becomes our business. The issue with wages is the world wide race to the bottom. Are you aware of the economic issues currently facing the west? Are you aware of stagnating wages and falling standards of living in the west?

Manufacturing has the ability to make or break a middle class.

Stefan, I’m not disagreeing at all.  What I really meant was that we all draw the line in different places.  To me, it’s not worth the effort and expense of picking the “right” beef or fish on the basis of the animal, but it is worth the premium for locally-sourced and Fair Trade foods.  You can disagree, and I won’t bat an eye if someone calls me a hypocrite over it, and my stand isn’t so principled that new information won’t shift it one way or the other.

But my point is that, with computers, I can’t make that choice AT ALL.  I don’t own any Apple products.  I never have, because I disagree strongly with their design philosophy and their political/legal stance.

But are the computers I buy any better?  Are they made five feet away from the iPods?  Made by North Koreans exported to Siberia?  Happy people who aren’t exposed to toxins?  No clue.

Even if I don’t have the power to stop even the worst abuses directly (and I have no illusions that I could), it’d still be nice to at least stop funding people’s deaths with my purchases.  Other than taxes, I mean.

Plus, Carman hits it on the head:  If the factories treat the workers so badly, what are the chances that they’ll treat you better and you’ll get a quality product.  The amount of cash Apple is sitting on gives a good insight into the markup on their products, which should give some idea of what the real value of the devices are…

@ L K Tucker.
you said : “Activists I contacted in Hong Kong do not want to stop the deaths they want an issue to argue.”

What about FoxConn management? Aren’t they the only ones with the power to change the factory floor?

My issues with Chinese semiconductor companies predates FoxConn. They have stolen designs (directly from the laptops of visiting engineers) and have captured an industry through slave labor and environmental crimes.

I have done work for Foxconn in the past. I saw the rise of Chinese semiconductors first hand. From trash to treasure in 5-6 years. I have also witnessed the exodus of formerly good paying jobs. don’t blame the unions, this is Texas, there were no unions.

Blame the environmental regulations, some people get pissed off if you pour hydrofluoric acid into their drinking water, Chinese folks just die quietly.

I actually run a factory in Dongguan and I can tell you that it IS 100% possible to run a factory here that is competitive, profitable, ethical and also humane.

What is NOT possible, in almost any product category, is to run a factory here in China that looks to Americans like the type of factory they would want to work in.

Basically, labor laws must be followed, worker health and safety must be a priority, and a culture of respect must be promoted. Generally, it costs LESS to do this than it does to contain the problems associated with sweatshop management, which tends to be as uncompetitive as it immoral.

I have never been inside Foxconn, and I only know it’s “horrors” from the news reports. Maybe it sucks working for Foxconn, maybe not. I don’t know, neither do 99% of the commenters here and elsewhere. Even if Foxconn were a great place to work, it would still not look so great to most Americans and Europeans.

Just one other thought: one way Apple could better monitor it’s suppliers is if it set up a China-based office, staffed with Apple employees wo report directly to Cupertino. These guys could monitor for Social Accountability, and could also perform on-site inspections, vendor development, shipment expediting, etc.

David

http://www.china-manufacturing.net/blog

@ YellowDog
You said: “Blame the environmental regulations, some people get pissed off if you pour hydrofluoric acid into their drinking water, Chinese folks just die quietly.”

I think this view of the Chinese as passive victims is a bit outdated. The Chinese are plenty willing to protest in support of their interests, and environmental protests are actually quite common.

@David

According to the information that I read that is just not true. I read a lot on this issue. I work in a “Fabless” envioronment, I have witnessed the job loss personally.

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2007319,00.html

“These accidents are happening all over China, and the scale ... has become larger and larger,” says Wen Bo, a senior fellow with the San Francisco–based NGO Pacific Environment.”

Time July 2010 google it.

Most indians get paid the same salary to work in IT companies. None of them complains.