After reading this post about rioting workers at Foxconn, I thought I should respond with what I saw when I was in Shenzhen.
The workspace where I’ve had my base of operations for the last two months has an employee who used to work at Foxconn as a test engineer. I asked him a few questions about his experience there, and while the language barrier was a significant problem, I managed to find some questions and answers that worked. He seemed reluctant to go into detail, though I imagine it was just as much because he was having a hard time understanding me and formulating answers.
He said living conditions consisted of dorms in which he lived with four people to a room. People worked eight hour days, but there was overtime of up to two hours a day. He said he likes his new job better, and that Foxconn was the best factory around. That was about as far as we got in the walk from the subway to the office.
His current job, working in R&D at Seeedstudio, seems remarkably normal for an engineer anywhere. Everyone arrives at 8-9, works until noon at their computers or in front of a lab bench, eats catered lunch either in front of their computer or with coworkers, then take a siesta for a while. Then the afternoon session starts and they work until 5-6, eating the catered dinner and going home in bunches.
I get the impression, not just from him but from other people I interacted with, that people generally have few complaints about working in the factories. They are treated well. Most if not all are young (college age or about), so living in dorms is partly social, partly time saving (often the dorms are right next to the factory, so there is no commute time), partly money saving (who ISN’T poor at that age?), and partly so they can send money back home, which they can afford since they are making so much more than they could back in village towns. Living in dorms isn’t forced; it’s a choice, and people often choose to pile in the places with the cheapest rent.
I’ll admit I didn’t particularly enjoy the catered lunches and dinners. Too many chicken necks and feet and random bones that had me flinching with every bite, and the boss liked spicy, so more often than not that’s what we got. But it was otherwise fine, and we could go back for seconds if we wanted, and lunch and dinner together cost about $3 a day.
I don’t mean for this post to be a generalization of all factories. Certainly there are places where workers are treated poorly. But the impressions I got from the people I talked to, the factories I toured, and watching people in public, things are generally not that bad, and could be compared to a college sophomore in the dorms, and a McDonald’s employee at work. Not ecstatic to be doing their job, but in a decent situation and making decent money.