Factory scene changes for iPhone workers in China but their budgets are tight

Workers are witnessing changes at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China

Foxconn workers play ping-pong.

Foxconn workers play ping-pong.

The iPhone 4 and 4S may no longer be cutting-edge in the U.S., but here in Zhengzhou, China, the handsets are becoming popular among the very low-wage workers that build them every day.

"A lot of workers are using iPhones. The iPhone 4 is now 2,000 yuan (US$326)," said a 24-year-old Foxconn employee surnamed Song. "But very few can afford an iPhone 5."

Increasingly, Foxconn workers in Zhengzhou are facing a flood of ways to spend their hard-earned cash. From smartphone vendors to Internet bars, the surrounding area is teeming with new shops cropping up near their residences.

But while some workers are finding promise in their jobs and the better living standards, many still struggle with the limits of their low-wage earnings and the pressure at work.

"I don't make enough money to enjoy the things here," said a worker surnamed Ji, who plans to quit soon.

Foxconn's facility in Zhengzhou, spread across two college-like campuses, employs about 300,000 workers and is devoted to producing the iPhone. To house and feed the giant population, local developers are transforming the area, erecting high-rise apartment complexes over what was once farmland and old homes.

An array of different stores, including restaurants, videogame arcades, and karaoke clubs, has also sprung up. On a Sunday night here, the buildings light the streets with neon, as vendors play "Gangnam Style" and holler out new product deals to draw in customers. Even a nearby park is in the works, along with a river channel that will run through an apartment complex.

The scene is a distraction from the monotonous factory duties many Foxconn workers face on a daily basis. Some assembly line employees are work 10-hour shifts to help produce 10,000 iPhones in a single day. This can involve simply sitting at a station repetitively performing one motion.

The factory work is partly why Foxconn has earned a bad rap in the past, and had to fend off allegations of harsh working conditions. The nadir of bad publicity was in 2010, when a series of worker suicides at another company facility in China put the electronics manufacturer in the limelight.

Employees here are also aware of Foxconn's reputation, but for some the work is acceptable, and even largely pressure-free.

"Foxconn is much better than I thought it would be," said a 23-year-old worker surnamed Sun, "It's not bad here. What they offer is very complete. There's a lot of things to do here."

On Sunday afternoon, Sun was playing basketball with his co-workers. He previously attended college, where he received a degree in machinery manufacturing, and now earns over 3,000 yuan a month maintaining the equipment at factories.

The job is not hard, and he usually works 8 hours a day. "I don't feel a lot of pressure. If you have a problem, you can just leave the factory," he said. "I don't know why these things (suicides) would happen."

Not all feel the same, especially assembly line workers, who receive lower pay, with monthly base wages at 1800 yuan to 2000 yuan. Many have to rely on logging overtime shifts to earn more, often bringing their earnings up to over 3,000 yuan. One 20-year-old, surnamed Hu, said he left his Foxconn job last year because it was stressful.

"I was afraid I was going to end up jumping off a building," he joked. Overtime is voluntary, but the work is boring, and path to promotion unclear, Hu said, adding that he had no college education.

Others like a 24-year-old worker surnamed Liu also complained about the stress at the job, but said working conditions at other factories in China are no different. He assembles motherboards for the iPhone.

"If I didn't come here, what else would I do?" he said.

Not only the surrounding area is transforming; Foxconn is also changing how it operates, according to the manufacturing giant. The company is stricter in verifying the ages of its workers, helmets are given to employees who travel by motorcycle, and annual health checks are offered to employees for free. A training program, called Foxconn University, is also available to workers who want to advance in their careers.

And while some workers may complain about their low pay, Foxconn on Thursday said its monthly wages are significantly higher than the local minimum wage of 1280 yuan a month. After a three-month probation period, entry-level workers can begin earning a base salary of between 2000 yuan and 2350 yuan, the company added.

Still, the pay is not enough for some. One worker surnamed Wang recently married, but plans to leave his job because the earnings at the factory are too low, even with the overtime hours.

"How can anyone have time to attend Foxconn's training classes," he complained. Even with all the money he's made in his two years at Foxconn, Wang said little of it now remains, with much of it spent on living costs.

"I've gained nothing from my time here," he added. "Sure, there is a lot to do here, but I don't have the money for it."

Tags Electronics manufacturingAppleFoxconn Technology Groupenvironment

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service

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