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Sixty three days later: The “zombie” interns of Foxconn
Xiao Chen is a second-year computer science major at China’s North-western Polytechnic University in Xi’an. His internship this year, like that of many of his fellow students at North-western, was halfway across the country in the coastal city of Yantai working on the production line for Foxconn.
He described in an interview with Beijing Youth Daily his 63 day stint at Foxconn, working ten hours a day, six or seven days a week. The work was tiring and monotonous and Xiao Chen said he ended up feeling like a “zombie” after weeks of high pressure, repetitive work with little rest. But he also expressed a measure of pride in his ability to assemble 1,600 units a day.
The basic pay was similar to that of regular workers at the factory, overtime was paid according to the Labour Law, and Xiao Chen said the dormitories were better than those at his school. However, his experience illustrates once again how vocational school students and even university students in China can be used by factories as a cheap and convenient source of labour and then sent back to school when no longer needed.
Xiao Chen’s Foxconn diary is translated in full below.
6 August: Arrival
After a 24-hour train ride, which I paid for myself, I arrived at Yantai train station, where I met a lot of my schoolmates. We all climbed on board the buses to Foxconn.
With hot showers and more beds than heads, Foxconn has better accommodation facilities than our school. I was assigned to a six-person dorm which could hold eight, and got clean bedding from the company. Because the enrolments were still being processed, some of us even had several free meals.
Day 1-7: Training means credits
The first week at Foxconn was mainly about enrolment and training, which included safety education like fire protocols, and learning regulations like no food and no electronic devices, such as mobile phones, MP3s and MP4s, inside the workshop.
We were also informed of our wages: my basic monthly salary was 1,800 yuan, with time and a half for weekday overtime, double pay for weekends, and triple pay for public holidays. We got paid an extra 100 yuan if we worked for seven consecutive days. However, each month, I had to pay 150 yuan for the dorm, and prepay 400 yuan for the meals.
The training session ended with an examination which most students could pass. It was not until then that I realised that the exam was actually considered as two credits in my curriculum, and the whole “internship,” if you finished, was four credits.
Day 8-14: From 50 to 1,000
After being assigned to the assembly workshop, I took the day shift and had to work from 7:20 am to 7:20 pm. All of us had to change into slippers, dress in anti-static suits, and go through a security check to exit the workshop after work.
My job was to take out a hard drive, put it in a protective case, fix the case inside a gaming machine, and pass it down the assembly line. I had to finish the job in less than twenty seconds to prevent stuff from piling up on my table. I finished around 50 units in the first four hours and 120 during the eight hours of the second day on the job. The workload continued to increase as I got more efficient. By the end of the week, I could finish more than 1,000 units a day. My record was 1,600.
Day 15-28: Sleeping like a log
I started to work the night shift (7:20pm - 7:20am) from the third week, and felt exhausted after work. In most cases, I had breakfast after the shift and went straight to the dorm to sleep the whole day, without having lunch. I usually got up after 5:00 pm, had dinner, and went to work. I preferred the day shift since there could be some time left for relaxing and entertainment after dinner.
During working hours, we had to stand for two hours before getting a ten minute rest. We also had a one hour meal break. We could drink water or go to the bathroom during those two hour stints, but we had to ask our line managers, who were all former assembly line workers, to get a replacement.
Day 29-35: The walking dead
I worked the night shift for three weeks, doing two hours of overtime and making at least 140 pieces an hour and on average 1,350 a day. I felt like a zombie on the job. I had no time to talk to people, sometimes no desire to talk at all, when the workload was heavy. Even with the air-conditioning on, I felt a lot of pressure and sweated when the products started to pile up in front of me. In order to get it over with soon and take a break, I pushed myself even harder to finish each unit in as short a time as possible.
Day 36-42: I would rather not get paid
In the sixth week, I was switched back to the day shift but by then it had become such an ordeal that I would rather not get paid. Just give me the four credits, I said to myself.
The day shift workers were supposed to work for ten hours (eight regular hours plus two hours overtime) a day, six days a week. But we were so worn out back then that many just walked off the assembly line after eight hours; few wanted to work overtime. The management convened a meeting the next morning and persuaded us to compromise and work for one hour overtime on weekdays, because, they said, the company couldn’t finish the orders if no one worked overtime. We agreed.
Day 43-49: Getting used to working seven days a week
One week into the day shift, Foxconn was pressured to launch an updated gaming device and the workers at the assembly line involved had to work 11 hours a day, seven days a week.
As the reluctance of the workers there to work overtime increased, our workshop asked if any of us wanted to do three hours overtime. I agreed and started to work seven days a week. From dozens of products an hour to at least 150; I was getting more efficient and feeling less tired. I think I was just getting used to it.
Day 50-63: Dream overtime days
Those who were chosen to work during the Mid-Autumn Festival [19 September] got paid triple, but I was not among the lucky ones, although the management had promised me the “privilege” before I agreed to work overtime on weekends. I felt a little upset and didn’t go to work the following day. I thought why should I have to act honestly if the company doesn’t? I was not alone.
In an attempt to get us back to work, our line manager promised that we would be able to work during the National Day Holiday. He kept his word this time. Coincidentally, a group of vocational high school students from Guizhou came to the factory to “intern” during the three-day holiday. This left us with nothing much to do. I got triple pay for some cleaning and sanitizing work. Overall, it was a triple win because the new “interns” also got paid three times more than normal and Foxconn got to keep the production lines running.
9 October: Last day
After I terminated the contract, if there ever was one, I left Foxconn in the morning of 10 October. The company took me to the train station by bus, just like they brought me to the factory in the first place.