Economy

In Zhengzhou, Where 16-Year-Olds Are Making Your iPhone X

There are factories galore in the capital of China's Henan province, where the labor pool is abundant. But for seasonal jobs, producers also use teenage interns.

Factory workers in a 2010 file shot when the Foxconn factory opened in Zhengzhou
Factory workers in a 2010 file shot when the Foxconn factory opened in Zhengzhou
Simon Leplâtre

ZHENGZHOU — Outside the metro station nearest to the giant Foxconn plant, four recruitment agencies are battling it out to attract visitors to "iPhone city," the nickname given to this new district on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, built by and for one of the largest electronic factories in the world. "No interview, come apply, quickly," the loudspeakers scream. An olive-skinned woman in her 40s invites people to sit on folding chairs. "If you bring us a trainee for 45 days, it's 3,000 yuan for you," she says. "If you have more to bring us, if you know a school, we can discuss bonuses."

This fall, the factories in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan province, are working at full capacity to supply copies of the iPhone X to the entire world. Foxconn, Apple's largest subcontractor in China, moved here in 2012 to take advantage of the abundant and cheap labor force of what is one of China's largest and most populated provinces.

But the industry doesn't just employ regular workers. It also relies on teenage interns, who are cheaper still and easy to dismiss — prefect for meeting seasonal needs. Right now, more than 3,000 students are currently working on Foxconn's assembly lines, doing the same jobs as workers, repetitive tasks that are in no way related to their studies. They also work overtime, even though it's against the law.

And yet, the situation is hardly a secret. After a series of suicides on the Foxconn campus in Shenzhen in 2010, Apple, its largest customer, tightened controls on its supply chains. But at 5 p.m., many teenage faces are still visible at the north exit of the huge Foxconn factory. A small group of 16-year-olds tries to forget about the boredom of the day in a games room near the dormitory. "It's depressing, this job, but we have to do it," says one young man (all the students we met asked not to be named). "If we don't, the school won't give us our certificate next year."

"It's terribly boring"

Students know that the practice is not exactly legal, but there's nothing they can do about it. Currently, 2,500 students from the Urban Rail Transit School, a vocational college in Zhengzhou, are working inside the Foxconn factory. A few hundred others come from various professional colleges across Henan province.

Most of the time, their work has nothing to do with their previous training. "I spend my day testing iPhone cameras," says a chubby boy in a billiard room, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. "I put them in a machine, I press a button, and I take them out. It's terribly boring," he adds. "I study graphic design, but in my school, there are some who are studying childcare, logistics, and we're all assembling phones!" His classmate polishes screens all day long. Another supplies the production lines with materials.

Contacted by the Financial Times about these practices, Apple issued a statement on Wednesday, Nov. 22. "During the course of a recent audit, we discovered instances of student interns working overtime at a supplier facility in China. We've confirmed the students worked voluntarily, were compensated and provided benefits, but they should not have been allowed to work overtime," the firm said.

iPhone X looking sharp — Photo: Tinh te photos

While it is true that interns are now compensated on an equal footing with the workers, they're still forced to do internships to validate their studies. The well-run system works thanks to the collaboration of professional schools, which rake in commissions, but also with the complicity of local authorities. In September, when the production of the iPhone X was in full swing, the education ministry of Henan issued notices to all vocational schools in the province, asking them to send their internship students to Foxconn, the Financial Times reported.

Schools justify these internships by presenting them as "work experience." They usually last two to three months. This autumn, up to 15,000 trainees are believed to have taken part in in the production of the iPhone X, according to employees. But with up to 350,000 people employed at the Zhengzhou factory, the number of trainees does not exceed 5% of the total workforce. Overall, the Taiwanese company employs about 1 million people in China.

Long days, low wages

The students we met told us that the Foxconn hierarchy informed them on Monday, Nov. 20, that they would no longer be able to work overtime, a measure that seems to be related to the visit, sometime earlier, by the Financial Times. All of these young people claim they'd been working overtime up to that point. "We used to work 10 hours a day, sometimes 11, six days a week," one young man explains.

That's about 60 hours a week in total, which allow students as well as novice workers to go from a basic salary of 1,900 yuan ($288 dollars) to about 3,500 yuan ($530 dollars) per month.

The reactions from Foxconn and Apple might look like evidence of goodwill, but there's room for doubt given how this issue reappears year after year. In July, a university in Shenyang, in northeastern China, issued an apology after forcing students to attend internships at another Foxconn factory in the coastal city of Yantai.

"This is the case for many subcontractors in electronics," says Keegan Elmer, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin. "The wages are low, the days very long, the conditions quite bad. The industry wears out employees very quickly, and recruits nonstop. For low-skilled jobs, the use of trainees and temporary workers is massive."

In the dusty streets of the Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone, the district's official name, there's hardly anybody over the age of 30. After two years at Foxconn, Liu, 23, is already a veteran. But he sees no improvement. "The company says it's making efforts, but nothing changes. Because if it did change, production would become more expensive. The workforce needs are seasonal. We work overtime and then, when there are fewer orders, they use the slightest excuse to dismiss you. For them, interns who come for 45 days are perfect."

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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