Inside 'iPhone City,' the massive Chinese factory town where half of the world's iPhones are produced
- Half of the world's iPhones are made at a sprawling Foxconn factory complex in Zhengzhou, China.
- It employs up to 350,000 people and has spawned its own mini-city, which 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 have worked at.
- But few saw a way out of the grinding factory lifestyle, where they work six days a week, see their spouses once a week 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 around 9.5 million people in Henan, historically one of the country's poorest provinces.
The factory, run by Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, employs approximately 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 of downtown Zhengzhou, separated by freeways, outer suburbs, and dirt scrub lands.
But with a workforce that rivals most US cities, the factory has sprouted its own type of city, which 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, senior principal analyst at 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 rely on 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.
Another worker committed suicide 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.
Sprawling over 2.2 miles and dozens of buildings, it looks like any business park. 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 was barren dirt and fields of corn and wheat. In 2010, the government bought out local farmers and had the factory up and running within the year.
The government even helps recruit, train, and house workers for the factory during peak iPhone production periods. During the peak summer months, a speaker can be heard near the entrance calling, "We're recruiting the cream of society. Your personality must be optimistic, your work diligent."
Workers on the day shift begin streaming in through the factory's gates around 7 a.m. Those that can afford it ride motor scooters, but most walk from the nearby dorms or take a bus if they live in the buildings further away.
Foxconn's iPhone factory in Zhengzhou does "final assembly, testing and packaging" or F.A.T.P. That stage of manufacture requires around 400 different 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.
The complex has wide boulevards for the many buses bringing in workers and the freight trucks carrying products out. The provincial government made the campus into a "bonded zone," which means the Chinese government views it as foreign soil. The arrangement allows Foxconn and Apple to import and export goods virtually, allowing the products to then be sold in China or anywhere around the world.
Most workers at the factory are between 18 and 25, though there are interns who are as young as 16. Among the workers that 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 of the 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 Business Insider that we had come during the tail end of the factory's low season. By the end of June, the factory is ramping up production for the fall release of the new iPhone. During those days, the vendor said, the workforce swells to 350,000 and the alleyways are packed.
There, we met Ms. Liu, a 31-year-old from Qian Hou, a village 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. We just make whatever is cheap and will fill the workers up," Liu told Business Insider.
Liu and the other vendors' lives move to the rhythms of the factory. Running a business catering to the factory 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.
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 for demolition 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.
The threat of demolition has scared most of the vendors and restaurant owners out of the makeshift village. Many were afraid they would pay the landlord rent for the year and be unable to get it back when the demolition trucks arrive, Liu said.
Everyday, new workers show up to work at the factory. As we sat near the entrance of the campus, it seemed like every few minutes, a new person arrived via taxi or bus with a large suitcase and a shopping bag of food. Some arrive with a job already secured, while others show up in the hopes that nearby recruiting agencies can secure them an interview.
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 start around 1,900 RMB per month ($298).
Most workers can raise their salaries up to 4,300 RMB ($676) by taking on as much as 60 hours of overtime per week. Chinese law limits overtime to 36 hours a month, but many reports suggest that workers take on much more during peak production periods.
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 is not 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 built outside the factory that workers have dubbed "iPhone City." There are a dozen or more 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 just outside the factory gates, the complex moves to the rhythms of the factory. When we walked in around 3 p.m., the area was deserted. Most of the shops were closed. Business owners were sleeping in the backs of their cars, taking a break before the factory let out in a few hours.
Just a few hours later, the town had sprung to life. There were street vendors selling socks, smartphone cases, and clothes, as well as mobile phone companies and banks offering services to workers getting off shift.
Farmers from nearby villages try to sell their fruit and vegetables to the workers as well.
Ma said that lower employment at Foxconn has big effects on 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, right 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 one of the restaurants 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.
Chen and the others at the table aren't exactly friends. They all work on the same team, inventory control, which makes them "drinking buddies," said Guo. It's a pretty plum job, compared to those stuck on the factory floor, soldering components.
The worst job at the factory is the assembly line, according to Chen, where you do the same task repeatedly every day for 8 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.
Zhang had little sympathy for those that 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."
Chen wasn't working at Foxconn when he was on the assembly line, but another factory. He's 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.
Chen's main post-work outlet seemed to be drinking. Over the course of 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 bemusedly and fiddled with his phone.
Like almost everyone, Chen and Zhang live in the dormitories. The provincial government spent around $1 billion building the housing to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of workers at the factory. And it looks like they aren'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, who live on bunk beds. Rent is around 150 RMB ($23.60) per month while internet costs an additional 18 RMB ($2.83). But because everyone works a different shift, the dorms rarely feel that crowded, Chen said.
Most workers eat breakfast and dinner at the restaurants near the dorms or the factory gates, and lunch in the Foxconn cafeteria on campus. The food is more or less the same — noodles, vegetables, and skewers of meat and fish. Meals on campus are slightly cheaper, around 5-7 RMB ($0.78-$1.10). Food at the stalls or restaurants costs 8-20 RMB ($1.26-$3.14), 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-years-old, Zhang seemed to have resigned himself to his current situation. After a moment of pause, he said, "Whatever opportunity is better, that's the future."
Chen said that most aren’t just thinking of themselves when they go to work. They have aging parents in the village who need assistance and, likely, children. If you are frugal, it is possible to save 75% of your salary, either to send home or for the future. But plenty of people spend their salary on beer and food, he said.
In numerous interviews, Foxconn workers describe 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 SCMP that Foxconn is more steady than most other employers in China.
The harsh reality that emerged in our conversations with workers and former workers is that Foxconn is neither the horrible exploiter that many Americans think it is, nor is it the bastion of well-treated labor that Apple and Foxconn like to portray.
But that hasn’t stopped people like Zhang and Chen from trying to make a fulfilling life. As we finished our conversation, repeatedly, Chen tried to pay for our beers and dinner, telling us that it was “fate” that we had met. At 125 RMB, it cost as much as his monthly rent. We wouldn’t let him, but his generosity remained.
When we asked Liu, the restaurant owner, if she thinks the Foxconn workers were happy, she laughed as though we had asked a ridiculous question. “We’re not happy either. No one is happy. It’s our livelihood. This is just life,” she said. “It’s hot. We work all the time.”
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