NYU student documents 6 weeks working on iPhone assembly line

New York University grad student Dejian Zeng spent his 2016 summer vacation inside Pegatron’s ChangShuo factory — a facility that produces iPhones for Apple — and he shared some of his experiences on the factory floor with Business Insider. When he started, Zeng was in charge of connecting iPhone 6s speakers to the back case and putting one screw in to hold it in place for more than 12 hours a day (including overtime). Two-hour stretches of work were punctuated by 10 minute breaks where many people try to catch any sleep they can, sometimes choosing to close their eyes over going to the bathroom for a drink of water. “It becomes a struggle when you’re very sleepy but also you need to drink some water,” Zeng said. “You can only do one thing. It’s just go to the restroom or come back and take some sleep.” The 50-minute lunch break in the middle of the day is also a popular time to sleep, with employees flocking to sofas scattered through a lounge area. But the factory has its own peculiar protocols for these naps as well, mandating that employees are allowed to sleep, but not allowed to lay down. “There are people walking around. If they see you lay down, they will swipe the ID and take a record of it,” Zeng said. “And they put the record in your profile. And then they will publish it to your whole assembly line, so your manager would come and yell at you later. Sometimes if it happens multiple times, they deduct money.”
Pegatron is stricter than some other Chinese manufacturers, not allowing employees to bring a phone into the plant, listen to music or even talk too loud. Controls became even stricter when the factory shifted to producing the then-unreleased iPhone 7, with more security checks and increased metal detector sensitivity that even picked up the metal wire in female employees’ bras. Zeng said the trial production of the new model was “torture,” spending 12-hour days producing five iPhones. “You sit there and have nothing to do, waiting for two hours. Sometimes they don’t allow you to speak,” Zeng said. “You just sit there quietly and have nothing to do, and wait until the next phone comes in. You’re trying to assemble it, and then you put it back and you wait for another few hours for the next one to come in.” During the early production of a new model, Apple staff is on-site every day, and the factory managers become much more careful. The facility goes from a standard assembly line to a clean room, with employees expected to use a roller to take the dust off their clothes before going inside. When Apple employees walk the floor, management puts everyone on high alert. “They say, ‘The client is here.’ They call Apple ‘the client’” Zeng said.

While Apple claims ” Pegatron had 99% compliance with workers working under a 60-hour workweek, and Pegatron workers who make Apple products work for 43 hours per week on average,” Zeng said in his experience overtime work was only voluntary in the loosest sense of the word. “You can’t leave easily. And then every time you ask, ‘Can I leave?’ they would just say, ‘You have to work on the assembly line.’ And so you know that every station needs to have somebody doing it. And if you leave, who is going to do it?” Zeng said. “It’s not easy to ask to not do overtime. It’s involuntary. I would say that’s the issue. Workers don’t have a choice. If I don’t want to work, if I’m really tired today and I don’t want to work, I can’t do that.” When iPhone 7 production ramped up after he left, Zeng’s contacts still working at the factory told him they even began working on Sunday, with one man working for 11 days straight. “I don’t know how the factory gets past the system where workers need to record their working time. Because when you go to work, you swipe your card. And my friend said they do swipe their cards when they work on Sunday. And I think it’s an obvious violation of Apple policy,” Zeng said.

After the work day is done, employees take the shuttle back to company dorms and hope there’s hot water (or any water at all) for a shower. After that, employees can sped some down time in an internet cafe, watch TV or play video games. If they want to use the internet on their phones, though, there are some other rules. “The dorms provide Wi-Fi. But to access the Wi-Fi, you need to do something,” Zeng said. “You need to either download some apps for them or click something — comments or something — to earn some virtual coins.” Vacation is also available in theory, but in practice requesting time off is difficult at best. Time off isn’t approved at all during peak production season, and even in the down times asking for a vacation is frowned upon. “It’s always like you are trying to make trouble for them, whether you’re asking for overtime or to not work overtime or are asking for leave.,” Zeng said. “They will have a very bad attitude towards you.” Zeng said safety training is a primary focus when people are hired, with downloading an Apple-created app about safety a primary requirement for starting your job. Management also makes periodic visits to the floor to ask questions of their employees, like if they’re pregnant, if they’re exhausted or if they’re students who are working for a short period of time. But he never saw anyone stand up in response to these questions for one simple reason. “The reason he did it is that if somebody stood up, they lost their job,” Zeng said.

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