Rare tour tries to prove Foxconn isn’t the hellhole we thought it was

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Foxconn employees accused of $43 million iPhone scam
Tim Cook meets a worker at the Foxconn factory during a recent trip. Photo: Apple
Photo: Apple

Having been the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning reports and BBC documentaries, the questionable standards of conditions at Apple supplier Foxconn’s factories has made the company notorious, while its work building iPhones has made it rich.

But a new tour of the company’s sprawling Shenzhen factory — where the company makes iPads and Macs among other products — is eager to paint a very different picture: one of changing company, more like a university campus, with plenty of educational opportunities, and suicide stats below that of the U.S.

A dorm on the Foxconn campus. Photo: Re/code
A dorm on the Foxconn campus. Photo: Xiao Hua / Re/code

Reported by Re/code, the tour shows off a Foxconn at odds with the one depicted in grimmer, more Dickensian interpretations: with college-like dorms for a population consisting of mainly 18-25 year-olds, swimming pools, and a 24-hour hotline for counseling.

One interesting section describes both the almost citified feel of the manufacturing plant (no wonder when you consider that Foxconn facilities routinely employ 140,000 employees, while the company in total has some 1.4 million workers), and an Apple University-type educational facility for employees:

“The Internet cafe is located on a tree-lined main street, with fast food restaurants, cafes, banks and other shops. It’s reminiscent of the company towns of a bygone era in American history, when the employer would provide its workers housing, goods and services (often at prices that, at least in the U.S. at the turn of the last century, were deemed excessive). [Foxconn spokesman Louis Woo] said Foxconn’s dorms and shops are independent businesses, and workers are free to live off campus.

The centerpiece of the tour … is Foxconn University. The poster articulates the seven traits for success, including a willingness to work, three hearts (responsibility, motivation, ambition) and work ethic. Woo said some 1.5 million students have completed their trade education at the school since 2007. ‘Our No. 1 priority is to provide better working conditions and salaries to our workers,’ Woo said, as we toured the campus in a golf cart. ‘Changing perceptions is secondary.'”

A Foxconn pool for employees. Photo: Re/code
A Foxconn pool for employees. Photo: Xiao Hua / Re/code

Of course, you’d have to be naive to believe the Foxconn-as-utopia narrative entirely. Despite what Tim Cook has tried to do to improve working and living conditions for people who work on the Apple supply chain, there are still problems: as evidenced when Re/code talks about the hauntingly omnipresent suicide nets, which are still present in the facility.

The publication also notes that, “To be clear, we were not allowed unfettered access” to the plant, and that “We weren’t permitted to observe the factory floor.” However, it’s an interesting counterbalance to some of the other reports you read about Foxconn, which often open themselves up to accusations of bias by, for instance, focusing exclusively on Apple’s association with Foxconn, despite it being just one of many customers.

Hopefully it is indicative, however, of a company which realises how it is often perceived, and is taking proactive steps to change that: not just with “everything is awesome” propaganda, but also with very real improvements to benefit the lives of workers.