What Would Siri Say? How Apple Subcontractors Exploit Underpaid "Interns"

Workers at Zhengzhou's Foxconn factory
Workers at Zhengzhou's Foxconn factory
Harold Thibault

SHANGHAI — The annual rush in Apple stores all over the world started Sept. 20 when the Cupertino, Calif.-based company released its new iPhones 5S and 5C. Outside Fifth Avenue in New York, the queue was the longest in store history. Similarly, in China, people went en masse to buy the latest smartphone, but for the first time they didn’t have to wait three months longer than American customers for the new devices.

At the Pegatron factory, in the southeastern suburbs of Shanghai, there was another kind of rush happening after the Taiwanese company won a contract to assemble the iPhone 5C, a year after it had won a similar contract for the iPad Mini. “Recommend a friend and get 1,000 RMB!” ($160), reads the banner hanging between dormitories here. It clearly shows that the Apple subcontractor, which already employs 180,000 people — most of them in China — has been having trouble recruiting.

Wang Jiankun, a 20-year-old management student, gave it a try. Along with some 50 friends from Henan University, he did a summer “internship” at Pegatron.

The group of students applied through one of the numerous recruitment agencies around the facility and its seven assembly lines. Wang soon discovered that this middleman was taking a substantial amount of money from his wage: “We knew beforehand that they would pay themselves directly from our salaries, but we didn’t know how much,” he says, visibly annoyed. “A couple of years ago, we had heard that they took 600 RMB $98, then we heard 10% or 12% of the wage. But actually, they’ve taken 20%.”

“We had to sign a lot of paperwork, some with Pegatron, others with the agency, so in the end we didn’t really know who was employing us,” explains Yuan Shaokai, who arrived at the factory with the same group as Wang. This is how it works: The agency helps them open a bank account in Shanghai, a requirement for them to be paid. Incidentally, the agency takes 200 RMB ($33) and assures the students they will get their money back if they stay more than two months — which is impossible for some, since they only have two months of vacation. Finally, because the accounts were opened by the agency, these middlemen can easily help themselves to their commission.

Wang and his friends were lucky, though. China Labor Watch, a New York-based association that defends workers’ rights, investigated their situation and pressured Apple. In the end, the Henan University students got back the 20% that had been taken.

“Slash labor cost”

In its January “progress report” on supplier responsibility, Apple dedicated a section to “How dishonest third-party labor agents conspire to corrupt the system.” Wang has his own explanation for the very existence of these shady middlemen: “They’re having a hard time finding workers.”

Apple chooses its suppliers based mostly on price, despite its vain wishes, says Li Qiang, founder of China Labor Watch. “Subcontractors have no choice but to slash labor cost if they want to win these contracts, and that only makes the workers’ situations worse,” he explains.

That’s why Pegatron was awarded the contract. In 2010, Apple’s longstanding subcontractor Foxconn had opened a facility in Zhengzhou, where 200,000 workers produced the iPhone 5. The advantage of that central China region was the low wages. There, Foxconn paid its workers $290 a month. In its first factories in Shenzhen, on China’s southeastern coast, the lowest wage was just above $325. At the Pegatron factory in Shanghai, one of the most expensive cities in China, the starting salary was just $265.

It’s possible Apple also chose Pegatron to diversify its suppliers, after Foxconn was hit by striking workers unhappy about the stepped-up production of the iPhone 5 at the end of the summer of 2012.

While both wages and social conflicts are on the rise all over the country, high turnover is no surprise. As a result, Pegatron turns to universities, where internships are compulsory, to find cheap workers. Its agents prospected as far as the professional institute of Chuxiong in the southwest of China, 2,500 kilometers from Shanghai. There, they found 21 students, among them Chaorong, 18, and Tianmei, 19.

Outside the factory, the two girls are getting a bit of fresh air, their pink jackets on their shoulders. This month, they’ve been working night shifts, installing motherboards from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. with two 40-minute meal breaks and a shorter 10-minute break. They still haven't had time to go and visit Shanghai’s city center.

In any case, they haven’t come here to earn the 1,620 RMB ($265) a month they get for 40 hours a week. They’re counting on adding multiple extra hours in the hope to earn 3,500 RMB ($570). Extra hours “are the rule” here, Tianmei says. “At the end of the day, we feel very tired,” he adds. The students hope to hang in there until the Chinese New Year, at winter’s end. “We heard that those who resign risk not graduating. That’s why we’re staying.” So far, nobody has refuted that rumor.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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