An undercover report from the iPhone 5 production line

In just a few hours time, Tim Cook will strut on stage and unveil Steve Jobs’ last hurrah, the iPhone 5 (and you can follow the event live, here, starting from 18:00 GMT). Hardware specs aside, the phone will undoubtedly be a marvel of exemplary design and engineering. Before you invest in Apple’s latest masterpiece, though, you should read a story that bubbled onto the Internet last night – a damning exposé (or insightful report, depending on your point of view) on how the iPhone 5 is made.

The story, published by the Shanghai Evening Post and translated by M.I.C. Gadget, is the account of an undercover journalist who infiltrated Foxconn’s Taiyuan factory with the purpose of finding out how the new iPhone 5 is produced. Located in China’s northern province of Shanxi, just west of Beijing, Foxconn’s Taiyuan factory is reportedly responsible for making 85 per cent of all iPhone 5s. The Taiyuan factory isn’t on the same kind of scale as Foxconn City in Shenzen, where some 500,000 staff work, eat, and sleep in a walled community, but it’s still a very large production line with tens of thousands of employees solely working on the iPhone 5.

To get a job at Foxconn, the Chinese journalist simply rolled up at the factory, where it isn’t unusual for hundreds of potential recruits to be waiting outside, hoping to be picked. The journalist was asked to fill in a form of 30 questions with yes/no answers to ascertain his mental health (one question asked “Have you got into a state of mental trance recently?”). Upon passing that test, he was asked to sign a contract. The main purpose of the contract is to ensure confidentiality – trade secrets, salaries – but it also includes a waiver, whereby the journalist had to waive his rights to a clean, safe, and quiet work environment. Not a good start.

The new Foxconn employee is then put through an intensive seven day training program, where the main tenet is simply obey. On the production line “there’s no advanced technology, you only need to obey instructions,” the instructor tells the Chinese journalist. “You might feel uncomfortable of how we treat you, but this is all for your own good.”

And then it’s time to actually produce some iPhones! To gain access to the production floor, all employees must pass through a metal detector – and if they set off the alarm, they’re fired on the spot. The production floor itself is noisy and the air is thick with the smell of plastic. In this case, our hero found himself on the production line for the iPhone 5 backplate. His job is to pick up a raw, unfinished backplate and mark four drilling points with a pen, in under three seconds. He must do this for 10 hours, without breaks. A fellow worker, sitting opposite the journalist, was exhausted and went to lie down for a while – but he was spotted by the supervisor and commanded to stand and face the corner of the room for 10 minutes.

Unauthenticated

The journalist also talks of his dormitory, canteen, library, gym, and other facilities, saying that most of them are free to use but in serious need of renovation. The wardrobe in his dormitory was full of cockroaches, and his wood plank bed had a big hole in it. In the entertainment centre, two thirds of the arcade machines don’t work – and, perhaps most importantly, nowhere on the entire campus sells beer.

Now, even though this diary was published in a reputable newspaper, we don’t really have a way of authenticating the details. A lot of the diary’s details contradict other reports that we’ve seen and read from Foxconn over the last few years. Foxconn is certainly a tough place to work – but when is production line work ever easy?

In one part of the diary, the journalist says: “I was thinking who on earth wants to work two extra hours overtime for only mere 27 yuan?” – but 27 yuan (£2.65) for two hours of work is actually quite a good wage in Shanxi. There is also a scene discussing Foxconn’s “spate” of suicides – but as we now know, Foxconn’s suicide rate is much lower than the Chinese national average. I doubt the diary is completely fabricated, but it might have been dramatised a little.

Ultimately, there’s no getting around the fact that millions of Chinese work on production lines like those found in Foxconn. Undoubtedly there are some that are clean and safe, but there are probably hundreds that are dirty and dangerous. If these workers enjoyed the same working conditions and salaries as Europeans or Americans, China wouldn’t have become the manufacturing capital of the world. This is just a fact of consumerist, capitalist life.