Workers on a Foxconn assembly line in Guangdong province. Photo from Reuters.

What's it like to work inside a factory making an iPhone 5?

Pretty terrible, as it turns out.

Foxconn (Hong Kong: 2038) -- a Taiwan-based company that's also the world's largest electronic components manufacturer -- is actually where most of Apple's iPhones come from. Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), which handles the design and marketing, relies on Foxconn's dozens of factories in mainland China to turn out its products by the millions for the planet's hungry consumers.

Over past years, the exposure of worker suicides, allegations of abuse, negligence, poor safety and poor protection for workers have tarnished Foxconn's image internationally, though its partnership with Apple remains strong. At the same time, it is fair to say that few of Apple's growing global customer base have allowed the link between the two companies to mentally translate into acceptance of corporate responsibility for a company they've grown to hold in high esteem.

But the prison-like factories building iPhones in China are real.

An undercover investigative reporter from the Shanghai Evening Post spent 10 days inside a Foxconn factory in China to better understand working conditions there.

His description of the world inside, originally published August 27, with parts translated and summarized below (MIC Gadget offers its own summary), paints a high-stress, confined environment with little respite, numerous concerns for personal well-being, and little if any prospect for rest upon returning to decrepit living facilities that Foxconn houses its workers in.

The wage a Foxconn worker makes for an entire month of work would probably be enough to purchase one of the new iPhones released by Apple at U.S. market prices (the entry-level model retails for $199).

The reporter, Wang Yu, embedded himself inside a major Foxconn factory in Shanxi Province near the city of Taiyuan, going through orientation and training, before finally being put to work for a harrowing two days directly on the assembly line.

His recruitment included little beyond cursory questions on his physical and mental health and whether he had a valid government-issued ID. Wang quotes a recruiter from Foxconn as saying "as long as you have no health issues, just bring an ID and you can get in." What about background and criminal checks?


Prospective new workers line up outside a Foxconn recruitment center in China. Photo from Reuters.

On his second day after arriving at the Foxconn factory, Wang describes his dormitory, which houses the plant's workers: "The entire building stank of a mix of garbage, sweat, and instant noodles. The door outside every dorm room was piled with trash that went uncollected. Ten people slept in one dorm room, the floors were covered in clutter, and the closets were full of cockroaches." Sheets and bedding provided by Foxconn were unclean, full of dust and dirt.

According to Wang, contracts for factory workers passed to himself and others on the second day failed to mention overtime policies. And under a section labeled "possible causes of occupational risks", Foxconn employees requested signers to answer 'no' to all parts, including those asking about 'noise pollution' and 'toxins'.

Wang quotes from a presenter during company orientation on the third to sixth days, covering its work culture, policies, and safety essentials, "when leaving the lab, don't concern yourself with high technology, only with being disciplined." After hearing that stirring line, new workers are quickly presented with a checklist of 13 varied rewards and 70 penalties for workplace behavior.

On the issue of suicides, which in the past involved workers leaping in desperation from Foxconn buildings, Wang's own observations say "all windows past the first floor on all the buildings in the compound had cages and bars", possibly to prevent jumpers.

A day of rest on the seventh day included a concert in a concrete courtyard inside the Foxconn compound, where workers mingled to loud music, being told that by an MC that "Usually we have a lot of stress at work, but we can't shout in the workshops or on the street, other people will think we're insane. But here, you can shout, scream, and dance to release all your stress!" Wang added, however, that the recreation facilities at the factory, which are supposed to include games and movies, were unkempt and malfunctioning; there were no places selling or offering amenities.

On the eighth day, Wang arrives at the plant gate promptly at 7pm. All information inside the plant is considered protected and the components they are working on are proprietary secrets, so any electronic devices taken into or out of the facilities result in immediate dismissal.


Foxconn assembly line workers in southern China's Guangdong province. Photo from Reuters.

His job, which will include little beyond sitting in front of a moving beltway to pick up and mark iPhone 5 back-plates, will not end until 7am the next morning, though he is offered a meal from 11-12 and a short 10 minute bathroom break.

The hidden reporter, suffering from back and shoulder aches, admonished by supervisors, and goaded to work harder and faster, estimates he worked on 3,000 back-plates in one night. In his section of the factory, with four assembly lines of 12 people each adding, painting, and removing parts from the phone, "36,000 [finished parts] could be produced in 12 hours."

Of course, the efficiency and nature of an assembly line means that all workers must leave and start at the same time, regardless of how they feel about overtime work. A full day's work at such a plant in China is meant to follow the 8-hour work-day rule, as it does elsewhere in the world, but no one left nor was allowed to leave at shift's end at 5am. For two hours of extra work, Wang received an additional 27 yuan -- about four dollars and a quarter. The workers work 7 days a week. Chatting and joking on the assembly line is berated and considered disruptive.

Supervisors tell him "once you are in the assembly line, whatever the line supervisor tells you, you do it." As Wang first entered the plant, a supervisor presented an iPhone backplate to his group of workers, saying "this is the backplate for the to still to be revealed iPhone 5. Since you are getting the chance to produce this, you should feel honored."