Dying for an iPhone – Jenny Chan, Mark Selden and Pun Ngai

Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers, Jenny Chan, Mark Selden and Pun Ngai, Haymarket Books, 2020, pp. 273

On September 30, 2014, a 24-year old poet Xu Lizhi working at an assembly line at Foxconn Longhua electronics factory in Shenzhen, jumped to his death. His poems give voice to the dozens of Foxconn workers who committed suicides due to organized repression, exploitation, blackmail, exhaustion, and hopelessness that was forced on them by their employer and the global supply chains they serve. He wrote about life on the assembly line, of utter despair and alienation that it brought upon the workers’ bodies and minds. Working for a minimum base salary and an overtime premium, Xu and his fellow workers “refuse to skip work, refuse to take sick leave, refuse to leave for private reasons, refuse to be late, refuse to leave early,” and “fall asleep while standing.” Theirs is a harrowing story of global capitalism, and in Dying for an iPhone, Chan, Selden, and Ngai provide a sociological overview of labour that drives China’s success and assures foreign corporate profits.

The book is a product of a decade-long collaborative and undercover effort between researchers from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong to examine Foxconn’s major manufacturing sites around China. By interviewing workers and their managers, student interns and teachers who oversee their Foxconn experiences and government officials, the researchers weave a disturbing narrative of systematic exploitation constitutive of an iPhone. Even though the researchers focus on Foxconn and the making of an iPhone, the processes that comprise both can easily be translated into other commodities and companies. Foxconn and iPhone are mere representatives of global capitalist exploitation and confirm that value derives from labour, not from Steve Jobs or Terry Guo.

Foxconn moved its operations from Taiwan after the 1985 Plaza Accord led to the New Taiwanese Dollar’s appreciation, making production more expensive and cutting into OEM contractors’ already thin profit margins. Parallelly, China’s reform and opening-up, coupled with China’s wage levels, which were 3% of those in the US and lower than wages in neighbouring countries, swayed many companies to move their labour-intensive operations to China. Foxconn joined the fray in 1988, establishing a factory in Shenzhen with 150 rural migrants. Restructuring of the state-owned enterprises, replacement of communal farming with “household responsibility system,” and other market-oriented reforms gave rise to mass reserve armies of labour consisting of the laid-off and the poor. They flocked to the coastal cities, to the Special Economic Zones, where global capital converged to take advantage of cheap, plentiful labour. By 2018, Foxconn became the single largest employer in China, with 1.3 million people on its payroll. Even though Foxconn enjoys a global presence, its operations in China are the backbone of its profits. Currently, and frighteningly, Foxconn operates more than 40 manufacturing complexes in 19 provinces in which they assemble electronics for global brands.

Cooperation with Apple began in 2000. Silicon Valley would design the product, but Shenzhen workers would assemble it. This split between sales and production allows Apple to adjust its production based on global demand, forcing workers to speed up production in peak periods, and lay off unnecessary workforce in downtimes and return them to dispatch agencies. Buyer-driven supply chains ensure that workers bear the brunt of corporate success or failure. Peak periods translate to twelve to fifteen-hour shifts, six to seven days a weak with closely monitored and set periods of rest. Downtimes lead to cost-cutting in the form of increased speed and the employment of student-interns who receive 80% of the standard minimum wage with no benefits. In 2010, Apple captured 58.5% of its iPhone’s sales price, while a mere 1.8%, or $10, went to Chinese labour. 

The key to Apple’s success is the punishing treatment of Foxconn’s workers. Researchers paint a grim picture of Foxconn’s production sites and how the needs of the company structure workers’ lives beyond it. Monitored by intrusive security systems, guards, and multiple layers of management, workers toil on assembly lines surrounded by quotations from Foxconn’s CEO, Terry Guo, barred from talking, laughing, and eating. In a blend of Fordism and Taylorism, each worker is made to perform a single task and is made to execute it within the time set by the Standard Operating Procedure. As the authors state, “the advanced production system crushes human feelings of freshness and accomplishment,” or as one of the workers put it bluntly, “my brain rusts.” Non-performance ensures disciplinary measures, including losing monthly bonuses, cancellation of performance bonuses, refusal of career advancement and dismissal, or banally copying passages from the CEO’s book with quotations such as “growth, thy name is suffering.”

Workers rent Foxconn’s dormitories, usually located on factory premises, thereby blurring the lines between workspace and private life, ensuring the control of the workers beyond the assembly line. Collapsing these divisions allows Foxconn to transfer workers to other manufacturing sites based on need. Workers are faced with a choice to either lose employment and housing or accept uprooting and move. Strict separation of the sexes, pooling of 8 to 24 workers from various provinces speaking different dialects, and long hours further ensure that no socialization occurs, which stymies the development of collective solidarity.

However, exploitation begets labour unrest, and the authors document various ways these are manifested at Foxconn. Work slowdowns at peak times, suicide threats, strikes and riots also highlight the role the government plays in enforcing this labour regime. As Chan, Selden and Ngai show, the government guarantees social order by putting down labour unrest, targeting labour activists, and promulgating legislation that benefits Foxconn. Even the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, a body tasked with representing the workers, fails to protect them and puts the employer’s interests first.

One example of state legislation which favours business interests, that the authors deal with at length, is the role of student interns from vocational schools. The State Council sought to increase vocational schools’ enrollment to boost labour productivity by targeting students from disadvantaged families. Mandatory internships were made a compulsory part of the programme in order to integrate education and production and provide students with skills to facilitate future employment. However, Foxconn benefited from this program by partnering with schools, subjecting the students to the same working conditions as the regular workers, while not offering any skills relevant to their study programs. As the authors show, in 2010, 15% of Foxconn’s workforce consisted of student-interns. 

Dying for an iPhone should not be read as a cautionary tale of corporations reneging on their corporate social responsibility but as an example of the human consequences of buyer-driven supply chains and unrestrained global capital. Nor should it be a call for ethical consumerism. To decrease production costs, companies move their manufacturing to countries with the lowest cost of labour, ensuring that the value produced by a worker far outstrips their compensation. Moreover, we should not fall into the trap of dualist thinking, believing the alternative to be that misguided axiom” a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” which only determines the degree of worker exploitation. The genuine alternative was, is and will be, the abolition of wage labour.

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