Dying For iPhones

Abby Zimet

On March 17, 2010, Tian Yu threw herself from the fourth floor of Foxconn's Longhua dormitory in Shenzhen, southern China after just 37 days of churning out Apple parts on an assembly line. One of 18 young Foxconn workers who attempted suicide that year, she was the youngest at 17, and one of the few to survive, though she was left paralyzed. Her story is told in rare detail by a Hong Kong-based group of rights campaigners in an academic journal called "New Technology, Work and Employment" that both tells her narrative and places it in the context of Marx' renowned "commodity fetishism."

Over three years of interviews, she describes a "massive place of strangers" where, isolated and far from home, she worked long, hard, silent hours overseen by harsh leaders, line leaders, team leaders and supervisors who demanded workers answer their ‘How are you?’ by shouting in unison, ‘Good! Very good! Very, very good!’ After two weeks with no time off, she broke when she didn't get paid due to a bureaucratic tangle; she was owed a quarter of the price of a new iPhone 5. The company eventually gave her a one-time "humanitarian payment" to help her go home; says her father, "It was as if they were buying and selling a thing."

Conditions at Apple plants, where little has reportedly changed, were in the news again last week after a scathing report about worker abuses from China Labor Watch. Most of the press attention, though, focused on a small reveal in the report about the iPhone C.

From a collection of quotations on the work philosophy of Foxconn's CEO, Terry Gou, on factory walls:

Growth, thy name is suffering.

A harsh environment is a good thing.

Outside the lab, there is no high-tech, only execution of discipline.


Sleeping outside the plant.

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