A View from David Zax
An (Actual!) Look Inside Foxconn
The journalist who busted Mike Daisey steps inside the factory.
Once upon a time, an actor named Mike Daisey wrote and performed a wildly successful monologue about Foxconn, the factory where your iPad (and much else) is made. Then, that actor got busted, by a journalist named Rob Schmitz, for including falsehoods in his monologue. (I wrote all about it here. It was pretty juicy stuff.) What happens when you take down Foxconn’s public enemy number one? You get a guided tour.
This week, Rob Schmitz, a radio reporter for Marketplace, is filing reports on his visit to the factory floor of Foxconn. He’s only the second journalist to have been granted that kind of access to the manufacturing giant.
The first report was filed Monday, and I embed the audio below. You can also read the full transcript here.
The first thing Schmitz was struck by was the sheer scale of the Foxconn factory. Even Schmitz, who has been to a lot of factories, was floored by the size of it; and his description of “line after line of hundreds of workers” sounds more like a city than a factory. (In fact, “city” is the very word Schmitz uses in another report.) But it drove home the fact that our sleek machines, whose very sleekness gives the illusion that they are machine-made, are in fact made by workers, human beings.
At least, for now. The other striking thing in Schmitz’s report is a vision of the way Foxconn and other manufacturers may inevitably be changing, particularly following Foxconn’s recent agreement to reduce overtime hours, something labor activists had been pressuring it to do. It turns out, though, that many workers come to Foxconn from their rural villages hundreds of miles away precisely because they wanted to put in the maximum overtime, save up money, and go home. With reduced hours, they can’t save as rapidly, particularly in a coastal city like Shenzhen with its high cost of living. So many workers will pack up and move back home–leading Foxconn spokesperson Louis Woo to say that the company is already replacing some workers with machines.
So was the struggle for better working conditions for China’s laborers counterproductive? If Foxconn could rely entirely on machine labor to replace old-fashioned man- and womanpower, perhaps. But Schmitz doesn’t see that happening. He says that he actually foresees Foxconn moving opening more and more factories inland, closer to the villages where its workers often come from. That way it can still take advantage of low labor costs in inland provinces, while those laborers can remain close to their families. “In some ways, this is a win-win,” he says.
Stay tuned, as they say, to Marketplace this week for more; Schmitz will be offering more details on his visit each day this week. And in his case, we can actually trust that what he claims he saw, he actually saw.