Employees who toil long hours for low wages at the Chinese factories that assemble the iPhone are part of the dark side of the country's rush to urbanization.
ZHENGZHOU — “Apple City,” where the Foxconn factories build the iPhone and other products for California-based Apple, is a strange new town, a patchwork of defaced countryside and overpopulated urban areas on the outskirts of southern Zhengzhou.
When the Taiwanese company Foxconn’s factories and their 300,000 workers established themselves here in the capital of the Henan province two years ago, the area was deeply disrupted by a chaotic urban boom. Some villages were destroyed, others were pierced by four-lane avenues, and corn fields are still surrounded by contruction sites.
In Dazhai, one of the villages at the edge of the immense square factory buildings, farmers just finished hastily building three-story, cube-shaped brick towers that offer “standard rooms, with hot water and Internet.” The little streets between them, paved with poor-quality concrete or simply covered with clay, are swarming with young people.
Needless to say, the village landlords are very happy. “Business is running smoothly,” murmurs a slightly stout woman whose family rents 62 rooms, each for for 600 yuan ($100) a month.
Apart from the few workers unwilling to stay in the dormitory or who live with their partners, these slumlords put up the thousands of employees and students attracted by this sweat economy with tiny profit margins and fierce competition. Though they are underpaid, Foxconn employees do spend in the local economy. But already, the barracks are in a pitiful state.
Apple City is in the early stages of urbanization, where nothing is made to last, with inadequate infrastructure and poor-quality material. “It seems like a joyful place after work with lots of young people,” says Liu Yang, a 27-year-old man from Sanmexia, a town bordering the Yellow River west of Zhengzhou. “Everybody has fun, but don’t go by appearances.”
Liu is distraught by this incredible concentration of young proletarians left to their own devices. He himself had become a supervisor at Foxconn and had managed to save a little nest egg, but he tried to start a business and lost everything. He’s now back at square one as an unqualified worker.
Inside the factory, discipline is sacred. But off duty, the law of the jungle prevails. In other words, the workers can’t rely on the police or on security forces to help them if they have a problem. A small mafia network is sucking the lifeblood out of the most fragile ones.
What, you don’t want to work here?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Foxconn is having trouble recruiting workers. Xiao Bing, a former employee who owns a small recruitment agency, complains about how difficult it is to find “clients.” At best, he finds one or two per day. To interview, applicants need only an ID card. The maximum age of candidates was raised from 35 to 40, because people “are in constant transit,” he says.
One worker, 36-year-old Wang, a strong man with short graying hair, says he initially wanted his wife and son to come here and join him. “But it’s unthinkable,” he says. He comes from a rural area in the north of the province, where he left a steel mill job he found was too “hard” and “dirty.”
It didn’t take him long to become disillusioned at Foxconn. For starters, the dormitory is an hour away by bus and costs him 900 yuan ($150) a month, food included. Without extra hours, he is left with 1,000 yuan ($165 dollars) after tax per month, less than at the steel mill, where he earned 3,000 yuan monthly for eight-hour workdays. “They’re robbers,” he says of his new employer.
Wang’s crushed hope is telling. By bringing factories closer to pools of workers — such as in Henan, a poor province with close to 95 million inhabitants — industrial relocations were supposed to facilitate the urbanization of local migrants. But for these young workers, ending up in a dormitory in their region of origin tastes more like defeat than social promotion.
“I earn less here than I did working in electronics in Shanghai in 2008,” Xiadeng says angrily as he sits on the upper mattress of a bunk bed in the room he shares with five other workers. And these living conditions don’t exactly encourage job retention.
And yet, the airport economic zone in which Foxconn is located is undergoing a massive administrative reorganization. Established in 2013 as a new district of Zhengzhou, its population is expected to rise from 600,000 to four million.
Citizens in transit
The goal for the zone is to “avoid being too dependent on Foxconn and to vary the types of industries,” explains Liu Shaojun, professor of urbanism at Zhengzhou University. Five years from now, some villages will have been razed and absorbed by the suburbs. Their population will have been relocated. There will also be social housing, but not for those who work at Foxconn. “For that, they would need to have the same rights as people who live in the city, but they move too much,” he explains.
Indeed, Foxconn employees are officially still living in their hometowns because none of the numerous localities situated around the factories would be able to legally integrate that many new inhabitants in one go. Besides, those villages, where the land is owned collectively, are self-managed. The inhabitants, who are responsible for the infrastructures, don’t care about urban rationality or the environment. Only profits matter.
This ecosystem enables Foxconn to build iPhones at an enviable cost. “Quality” urbanization promoted by Chinese leaders is not a consideration for Foxconn or for the local authorities. “The dominant approach in China is very pragmatic,” explains Chinese studies expert Chloé Froissard. “Big cities integrate those they’re interested in, who have qualifications or take care of themselves. There is no logic of welfare state or of equal rights.”
In the karaoke rooms set up in the cellars of the dormitories, the young workers maintain that they have no intention to rot in Apple City. Of course, they would like to live in Zhengzhou, but their priority is to save money before trying to obtain an urban “hukou” (China’s domestic passport and household registration system). They are frightened of unemployment.
“If there’s no more work, I'll have nothing left,” says Liu Yang, the former supervisor. “At least with my hukou, I’ll always have a piece of land.” In the meantime, like hundreds of thousands of others, he will have to make do with being a citizen in transit.