In Foxconn's iPad factory, a window on Chinese hopes - and frustrations
Underneath China’s economic strides, Foxconn's iPad factory shows its labor market remains rooted in tough conditions and low wages, even as workers aim to improve their lot in life.
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That business, however, has come with a cost.Skip to next paragraph
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Less than a year after starting operations in Chengdu, an explosion at Foxconn’s facility in May 2011 killed four people and injured more than a dozen.
Last month, an incident involving seven Foxconn employees and restaurant staff near the factory led to “a disturbance” in which about 100 people at an apartment compound hurled various objects, some at security guards, according to official accounts and interviews. Nine days later, a Chengdu worker apparently jumped to his death from an 18th-floor apartment, echoing the 2010 spate of more than 12 reported suicides at company operations in other parts of the country.
In a statement defending its practices, Foxconn described a wide range of measures it’s implemented to benefit workers. Those include entry-level pay that’s considerably above the minimum wage, four wage hikes in the last three years, a cap in overtime, 24-hour counseling hotlines and recreational facilities, the company said.
“We are focused on providing the best working and living environments for our employees and, in that process, raising the bar for the industry in China,” said the statement, which was released through the Hong Kong offices of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.
China’s leadership wants Chengdu, a southwestern metropolis of 14 million-plus people spread across urban and rural areas, to help anchor an economic powerhouse in the nation’s interior. Away from coastal regions, where an export boom built on cheap labor fueled three decades of growth, they envisage a China that attracts state-of-the-art research and manufacturing. The resulting salaries presumably would encourage consumption among Chinese and a broader service sector, helping to lessen dependence on exports, which are prone to the swings of struggling Western economies.
For now, the day-to-day reality is closer to Foxconn – or worse. Workers said that although the factory wasn’t a particularly pleasant place, it was better than many other options.
To give one example: A 16-year-old girl that McClatchy interviewed said she worked full time, 40 hours a week, inspecting iPads for the company. It’s a fact that might make US consumers uncomfortable. The girl, though, emphasized that her overtime doesn’t exceed 36 hours per month. Nervous about being interviewed, she didn’t give her name.
Foxconn’s statement referred to Chinese law that permits hiring 16-year-olds, and said that about 4 percent of its employees in China are aged 16 to 18.
While income levels have climbed in Chengdu and China as a whole – more than tripling in this city since 2000 – they’re still far below those in more developed economies. Last year, the annual per-capita disposable income for urban residents in Chengdu was about $3,750, according to official statistics. The annual net income for rural residents was around $1,550.