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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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