What Happened When A Student Went Undercover At Chinese iPhone Factory

“We need to be aware that behind these products there are millions of workers producing it.”

A student from New York University spent his summer working in a Chinese manufacturing plant in an attempt to highlight the working conditions of the workers.

Dejian Zeng, student of second year Masters of Public Administration, teamed up with New York University and the NGO China Labor Watch and spent six weeks working in Pegatron factory located near Shanghai. Pegatron is a Chinese plant which manufactures iPhones for Cupertino-based Apple. 

Zeng was tasked as an investigator in the factory where he worked six days a week and screwed approximately 1,800 screws into 1,800 iPhones everyday. He spent 12 hours in the factory daily along with 200 people with similar jobs. They were responsible for putting together 3,600 iPhones per day.

“So my station is called 'Station 26: Fasten Speaker to Housing.' So what I do is that I put one screw over the speaker and fasten it on the back case of iPhone, and that’s the only work that I do. It’s just one screw for about 12 hours in the factory,” he said.

Zeng was paid 3100 yuan (about $450) and housing for a month of work, including overtime. He slept in a dorm room with seven other people with around 200 people per floor. Each floor had only one bathroom. At times, the dorm didn’t have water available for residents to shower.

He explained that factory management is very careful and constantly made rounds. Workers are not allowed to talk or sleep. He also said another thing of concern was that overtime was involuntary and it was not easy for workers to skip it, even if they were exhausted.

“What shocks me is that overtime is involuntary. [The workers] are actually kind of forced to do overtime,” he added.

He also observed that managers also had a very strict attitude toward workers and he recalled an incident when an entire assembly line was shut down solely for the purpose of gathering all the workers together and screaming at one allegedly underperforming employee.

Workers’ complaints file go directly to the factory itself and Pegatron could prevent those reports from ever reaching Apple, Zeng reported. In fact, he is sure that a lot of complaints that workers send never reach Apple.

However, it is not difficult to get a job in the factory.

“I just show up in front of the factories, and I saw a lot of people already carrying their luggage and waiting in line so I just step in line and wait. And then, when it’s my turn, they ask for my IDs, ask me to show my hands and they ask me to recite English alphabet. But that’s basically the interview process, and then I was in.”

He returned back to his university after six weeks but the time he spent at the factory left an impression on him.

“We have a lot of stereotypes for workers. I think they are from rural areas, they are uneducated — but it turns out a lot of them are very interesting people, and a lot of them are very capable people. Before I get into factories I take a lot of things for granted. I think it’s very important to remember that there are people behind these products that provide good service to us.”

Zeng hopes the management pays attention to the working conditions of his former coworkers. 

Recently, a report prepared by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights revealed the Taiwanese company that makes circuit boards for Apple iPhones and iPads forces its laborers to work in atrocious conditions akin to slavery. The report claimed that Zhen Ding Technology Holding's factory unit in Shenzen, China, makes its staff members work 65-hour weeks, has plywood beds for them to sleep on and enforces its commands via its brigade of highhanded security officers.





Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters 

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