Chinese factory laborers often refer to their jobs as “working the screws.” Hunter, a 34-year-old former worker on the iPhone 14 Pro assembly line at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China, experienced this harsh reality firsthand.
Working at the factory meant performing the same task over and over again every minute, connecting a battery cable to the rear cover of an iPhone and securing it with two screws. During a 10-hour shift, Hunter’s target was to complete the task 600 times, using a total of 1,200 screws. This monotonous task was performed within a windowless workshop that reeked of chlorine and with limited breaks, including a strictly timed hour-long lunch break and no toilet breaks without making up for lost time.
Under the watchful eye of line leaders, who monitored workers’ progress on a computer, Hunter felt like he had no rights or dignity in the workplace. The constant humiliation and tediousness of the job took a toll on Hunter, but the high pay kept him going.
Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory, nicknamed “iPhone City,” covers an area of 5.6 square kilometers and employs around 200,000 workers at full capacity. It produces approximately half of the world’s iPhones, making use of just-in-time manufacturing, where products are made as consumers order them. The factory’s busiest season starts around September or October and lasts until the Lunar New Year in January or February.
To keep their assembly lines running at full speed, Foxconn offers high pay and bonuses, attracting rural migrants and college students to work under heavy workloads, skipping holidays, and following a tight schedule. This past peak season was particularly tense due to Covid-19 outbreaks and a labor protest that disrupted production and put the factory behind on its iPhone 14 Pro orders.
The recent events have brought attention to the lives of Chinese manufacturing workers and the risks associated with having a single facility producing the majority of Apple’s most profitable product. Apple did not respond to requests for comment, while a Foxconn spokesperson referred to their January revenue report, which stated the company was making efforts to protect workers’ rights during the pandemic.
Rest of World spoke to Hunter and other Foxconn workers over several months, witnessing the turmoil within iPhone City. Despite the harsh working conditions, the workers acknowledged that the high pay made the job bearable. For some, like a former chef who lost his restaurant during the pandemic, working at Foxconn was their only option. Hunter himself had previously worked as a security guard for Foxconn over 10 years ago and, like many of his rural peers, dropped out of school as a young teenager to find work in the more affluent coastal areas of China.
In conclusion, Hunter’s story highlights the difficult and often oppressive working conditions faced by Chinese factory workers, who, despite the harsh realities of their jobs, are driven by the high pay offered by companies like Foxconn.