Just in time for the launch of the iPhone 5 comes an undercover report about working conditions at the Foxconn factories that assemble Apple's latest phone. Except, unlike the concocted reports from American "performance artist" Mike Daisey, this information is real.
But what's worse for Apple is that this call is coming from inside the house.
The investigation into Foxconn began as a Shanghai Evening News reporter signed up for a Foxconn job and then spent ten days training and assembling iPhones. Some of the notes from his diary as first noticed and translated by blog MIC Gadget:
"The first night sleeping at Foxconn dormitory is a nightmare. The whole dormitory smells like garbage when I walked in. It’s a mixed of overnight garbage smell plus dirty sweat and foam smell. Outside every room was fully piled up with uncleared trash. When I opened my wardrobe, lots of cockroaches crawl out from inside and the bedsheets that are being distributed to every new workers are full of dirts and ashes….
"When someone has asked about the suicide issues, the management staff didn’t avoid the topic but not willing to discuss too much on it. During the suicide topic discussion, someone has voiced out that the bad living environment will sure lead to more suicides. Also I have noticed that all the windows in the dormitory has been framed behind bars…
"By my own calculations, I have to mark five iPhone plates every minute, at least. For every 10 hours, I have to accomplish 3,000 iPhone 5 back plates. There are total 4 production lines in charge of this process, 12 workers in every line. Each line can produce 36,000 iPhone 5 back plates in half a day, this is scary … I finally stopped working at 7 a.m. We were asked to gather again after work. The supervisor shout out loud in front of us: “Who wants to rest early at 5 a.m !? We are all here to earn money ! Let’s work harder !” I was thinking who on earth wants to work two extra hours overtime for only mere 27 yuan (USD$4) !?"
Notably missing from the diary is any report of guards with machine guns, a detail of Mike Daisey's claims he encountered in his hit "not journalism" one-man show, "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."
Maybe the most telling revelation from the reporter was his note that, "Curiously, nowhere inside the facility could one buy alcohol." (MIC Gadget translated this as "beer" but in the original diary the reporter notes there is no alcohol whatsoever ("任何酒").) Those with any significant experience in China will recognize this as explicitly intentional, as beer is available at nearly any vendor of any size anywhere in the country, even halfway up the Great Wall. The lack of beer can only mean that Foxconn fears social unrest brought on by over imbibing, a common Chinese practice.
The report is not wildly damning, but it does add a fuller picture to the working conditions at Foxconn and offers a counterweight to more formal reports over which Foxconn PR has been able to exercise some control. For example, in April, PRI's Marketplace program that runs on NPR affiliates was allowed to produce a "How the iPad is made" report that was informative but also certainly stage managed by Foxconn. The one detail the Marketplace's report and the Shanghai Evening News undercover report have in common is that workers continue to line up in droves for these jobs.
One trend that Apple might want to worry about is how this Shanghai Evening News report is just the latest ding against it by the Chinese press. It was just last week that a college student from the Huaiyin Institute of Technology claimed 200 youths were compelled to work Foxconn's line in Jiangsu Province in a sort of forced, low-paid internship program.
But then, the unverified reports of forced college laborers, the timing of the iPhone 5 investigation, and the recent attacks singling out Apple's repair policies as "unfair" all come from state-run media. And when publications like The New York Times take such unverified anti-Apple reports and run with them, it may be exactly as planned for a nation that has an interest in tamping down Apple's brand in a China market in which central planners would like to see a native brand rise.
The upside for Apple — and downside for humanity — is that Samsung may now be facing similar bad PR over its manufacturing process.
Chinese consumers have yet to demonstrate a large degree of sensitivity to the working conditions of those assembling their favorite devices. But the trend toward more negative Apple news in China's domestic press and social networks is bad news for a brand that has stumbled a bit and absolutely must have a successful iPhone 5 China launch to fend of Samsung's challenge to its China market share.
On the day of the new device launch, "iPhone" occupied two of the top ten topics on Weibo, though not every Chinese consumer was as wowed by the latest iteration.