An American Student In An iPhone Factory | Business Insider | Kif Leswing

“Imagine going to work at 7:30 every night and spending the next 12 hours, including meals and breaks, inside a factory where your only job is to insert a single screw into the back of a smartphone, repeating the task over and over and over again. During the day, you sleep in a shared dorm room, and in the evening, you wake up and start all over again.That’s the routine that Dejian Zeng experienced when he spent six weeks working at an iPhone factory near Shanghai, China, last summer. […]. Unlike many of those workers, Zeng did not need to do the job to earn a living. He’s a grad student at New York University, and he worked at the factory for his summer project.”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: Thanks to my colleague Kevin Hop for sending me this rare peek into the life of the people who assemble iPhones by hand in Chinese factories each employing tens of thousands of workers. We need to keep in mind that this is the perspective of Dejian Zeng, an American student who was there for 6 weeks, not someone who works there for a living, but it is still informative.

While his account wouldn’t make anyone want to embrace iPhone assembly as a career choice, it’s not a horror story. The work is dull and repetitive, and there is too much of it, but it’s not described as dirty or dangerous. I have seen worse in poorly ventilated paint shops and machine shops with slippery floors, and not only in China.

The first detail that struck me is Zeng’s description of his task as picking up an iPhone housing from a moving conveyor, screwing on a speaker, and putting it back on the conveyor. This isn’t the way an assembly line is supposed to work, particularly with takt times in seconds. The workpiece is supposed to be in a fixture moving down the line and presented to the operator in the right orientation, so that he or she can attach the speaker without spending a second or two picking up and setting down the housing.

Zeng also recounts that, during iPhone7 trial production, all the operators on a line of 100 stations were made to sit for hours waiting for the few units they made, which Zeng describes as “torture.” I was not overly surprised to read this because I have seen a cell phone assembly line in China with every operator sitting idle at a station waiting to work to arrive. By contrast, trial production of a new car engine model at some manufacturers in Japan is done with by inserting units of the new model in the flow of work for the current one, not by keeping an entire line fully staffed and idle.

Zeng also described the security checks to enter and leave the plant as adding 30 minutes to each work day. The management message from such practices is “we can afford to waste your time.” The implication is that the workers’ time is not valuable, and therefore that they, as human beings, are not valuable. It is the opposite of showing respect for their humanity.

According to Zeng, his colleagues on the assembly line were not considering a career with the company. The turnover was high, they were mostly migrant workers from the countryside who came to work for a year in the city, save money, and return home. This is the pattern I had observed in the Pearl River delta and in the Mexican maquiladoras along the US border. This kind of churning is not sustainable because (1) it prevents the accumulation of know-how in the workforce, (2) you keep spending on recruiting and training new operators, and (3) you eventually drain the pool of young people from the farms who are willing to do these jobs.

Zeng describes Apple representatives as always present, pushing the contractor to improve working conditions and provide more training. As Zeng saw it, since Apple is “the client,” the contractor is making a show of following their recommendations. Zeng accuses the contractor of feeding test answers to workers after training and of instructing them to give high marks to the training on evaluation sheets.

For his efforts, Zeng was paid US$450/month in addition to housing in a dorm, but we need to be careful in interpreting what it means. Apple is spending dollars to pay this contractor to build iPhones, and the dollar equivalent of wages based on the bank exchange rate of 7 Yuan/US$ is relevant to the economics of this supplier for Apple.

The workers’ standard of living with these wages, however, needs to be considered differently. On the one hand, manufactured goods that are sold in the world market are no cheaper at retail in China than anywhere else, even when they are made locally. In terms of the power to purchase such goods, the amount of Chinese Yuan that translates to US$450 at the official exchange rate is worth exactly that. In particular, the workers cannot afford the products they are making. Haircuts and other services, on the other hand, are performed by people who charge rates that are commensurate with local wages. For such services, a dollar goes farther in Shanghai than in San Francisco. According to the OECD, in 2016, in terms of purchasing power parity, the dollar was actually worth only 3.5 Yuan, and therefore Zeng’s wages US$900. While still low compared to US wages, it’s not equivalent to receiving US\$450 in the US.