Ten years ago, a spate of suicides at Foxconn’s factories in Shenzhen thrust the company into global headlines. These workers, part of a million-strong workforce, were involved in making Apple’s iPhone, the world’s premier status symbol smartphone. While the suicides are now mainly in the past, the issues raised in Dying for an iPhone remain pertinent to China’s labor situation and global manufacturing generally.
The book clearly juxtaposes the enormous revenues and reputation of Apple and Foxconn and the masses of Chinese factory workers employed to make their products at low wages. The sheer gulf in status between capital and labor is striking, and it is hard to miss the irony in the exploitation of cheap labor deployed to produce one of the world’s most desirable electronic items.
Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai, is a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer that happens to be the largest private employer in China, reaching a peak of 1.3 million workers in 2012. Its factories are massive complexes that also include worker dormitories, warehouses, schools and even hospitals. Housing as much as 130,000, these factory dorms full of mostly young migrant workers from all over China have the population of small or medium-sized towns.
However, it is the repetitive and strict work conditions on the factory lines that tend to break workers, leading to suicide attempts or sending them back to their hometowns. Unsafe conditions exacerbate the problem: the most notorious accident was an explosion caused by the accumulation of aluminium dust in an air duct that killed four workers and injured dozens at Foxconn’s Chengdu plant in 2011.
From undercover research in Foxconn factories and firsthand interviews, the authors—two academics and a researcher—describe the lives and work conditions of the workers and how Foxconn, as their employer, often failed to live up to its obligations. Whether withholding wages, engaging in partnerships with colleges to force interns onto the production line, or ramping up production targets, the authors report clear instances of worker abuse, with worker protests, strikes and slowdowns being the result.
There are also fascinating insights into the structure of China’s export manufacturing economy. For instance, Foxconn has massive revenues of over US$100 billion, but it operates at very thin profit margins, which is a major factor in its worker exploitation. Meanwhile, while the iPhone is manufactured in China, the cost of labor represents only 1.8% of its retail price: reforms that would make a huge difference in workers’ lives would thus hardly register in product cost.
The book provides a good overview of Foxconn and is full of facts, statistics, and findings. As a result, it at times reads more like a report than a book. The fact that there are three authors might be a factor: many different issues and incidents are covered, which tends to dilute the focus and prevents the development of a stronger and overriding narrative.
The picture of Foxconn and Apple that the book presents is also one of the past: times have changed. Due to the US-China trade war and other economic factors, Foxconn is moving a significant part of its manufacturing out of China to other countries such as India and even the US state of Wisconsin. Nor is Apple itself as popular in China as it was in the early and mid-2010s, having made way for domestic brands like Xiaomi, Oppo and Huawei. Workers in China nowadays are more informed, educated and less willing to work in menial factory jobs for petty wages.
The issues and abuses detailed in Dying for an iPhone are not just confined to Foxconn nor China. Companies from tech firms to clothing giants have also been implicated in using manufacturers that engage in widespread worker abuses. The work undertaken and the findings described in Dying for an iPhone nevertheless still have a granular relevance for activists, workers, and the general public.