Imagine going to work at 7:30 every night and spending the next 12 hours, including meals and breaks, inside a factory where your only job is to insert a single screw into the back of a smartphone, repeating the task over and over and over again.
During the day, you sleep in a shared dorm room, and in the evening, you wake up and start all over again.
That’s the routine that Dejian Zeng experienced when he spent six weeks working at an iPhone factory near Shanghai, China, last summer. And it’s similar to what hundreds of thousands of workers in China and other emerging economies experience every day and night as they assemble the gadgets that power the digital economy.
Unlike many of those workers, Zeng did not need to do the job to earn a living. He’s a grad student at New York University, and he worked at the factory, owned by the contract manufacturing giant Pegatron, for his summer project.
Dejian Zeng spent six weeks in the summer of 2016 at a Pegatron facility on the outskirts of Shanghai for his summer project.
He told us:
- He was paid 3100 yuan (about $450) and housing for a month of work, including overtime. He slept in a dorm room with seven other people. What happens when a factory starts producing an unreleased iPhone. Factory workers usually cannot afford new iPhones. There's an Apple-promoted app that the factory wants all its workers to download. Why it can get stinky in the factories. Why he believes iPhone manufacturing will never come to the United States.
Like many tech companies, Apple makes nearly all its computers and phones in China, using contract manufacturers like Pegatron.
That has recently become a contentious political issue, with President Donald Trump calling for Apple to bring manufacturing - and the jobs that come with it - back to the United States.
At the same time, Apple's overseas manufacturing has long been a target of criticism from some groups that point to workers' long hours and low wages.
Leaders in the tech industry say Apple has shifted its practices to address previous controversies over its factory workers in China. In March, Apple released its annual report looking at its manufacturing operations.
To see what the situation was like firsthand, Zeng went to work undercover in Pegatron's ChangShuo factory last summer, armed with a fellowship from NYU. The factory he worked at was profiled by the BBC in 2014 and Bloomberg in 2016, with the reporting focusing on whether some workers were forced to work overtime shifts.
Apple employees are on the ground at the Pegatron facility every day, an Apple representative told Business Insider.
Apple performed 16 audits at the ChangShuo Pegatron factory, finding that 99% of workweeks were under 60 hours, with the average workweek for people assembling Apple products clocking in at 43 hours. Wages at Pegatron have increased more than 50% over the last five years, and they are higher than the Shanghai minimum wage, the representative said. Pegatron didn't comment.
Zeng, who plans to work at a Chinese human-rights nonprofit when he graduates, said he believed a strike was imminent at the Pegatron plant when he went to work there. No strike happened, but Zeng got a look into the daily lives of factory workers who assemble iPhones.
Here's what he told Business Insider about his experience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kif Leswing: So what did you do? I'd love to hear about your day.
Dejian Zeng: At the beginning, I was assigned to the assembly line in the department called FATP, final assembling testing packing. We put the iPhone together.
One line might have about 100 stations. Each station does one specific thing. At the beginning, I work on iPhone 6S. And then after August, we are working on iPhone 7.
When I'm working iPhone 6S, I do two stations. One station at the beginning I did fastening speaker to housing.
What I did is that I put the speaker on the case, and I put a screw on it. The [iPhone] housing - we call it the back case - is moving on the assembly line, and that's when we pick it up, and now we get one screw from the screw feeder, and then we put it on the iPhone and then put it back, and it goes to next station.
Leswing: You were in charge of one screw?
Zeng: It's like, that's the work. I mean, it's simple, but that's the work that you do. Over, over, over again. For whole days.
Leswing: Did it drive you nuts?
Zeng: The first couple of days you're very concentrated because you couldn't catch up the speed of the assembly line. You need to be very quick to catch up. So you're very, very focused. It makes you very tired, but it keeps your mind on it. You have no time to think about things. I need to get quicker and quicker.
And then, after awhile, you get more familiar to it, and that in the end, I can even do this screw by closing my eyes. It is just like that. So after that, you get a lot of time that you have nothing to do. That's when people feel very annoyed. Because in the Pegatron factories, any kind of electronic devices are not allowed to be inside the factories.
It makes you very boring there because you can't listen to music. Sometimes workers talk with each other, random chats, but sometimes your line manager gets very upset by that. They say, "Keep your voice low."
Leswing: So when and where did you wake up every day?
Zeng: I wake up in a dorm shared by eight people. The dorm is not on the factory campus - it's in a place about 10 minutes drive, and they have a shuttle bus for us.
At the beginning, I would have work on the night shift. I wake up at 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m.
The assembly line starts working at different times. Some coworkers start working at 7:30 p.m., some workers at 8 p.m., some like 8:30 p.m, some at 9:30 p.m.
I started at 7:30 p.m, so I take the shuttle bus at 7 p.m., and then we start getting to the factory about 7:15 p.m.
After roughly two hours, you have a 10-minute break.
During the break, many people sleep. And it's kind of a struggle because this is not a very long time. And if you want a drink of water or if you want to go to the restroom, you need to walk out a huge workshop and then go to the restroom, and then come back in - takes about 10 minutes.
"I mean, it's simple, but that's the work that you do. Over, over, over again. For whole days."
Leswing: So the bathrooms are not around?
Zeng: It becomes a struggle when you're very sleepy but also you need to drink some water. You can only do one thing. It's just go to the restroom or come back and take some sleep.
Leswing: You just came back from a 10-minute break. What do you do now?
Zeng: After another two hours, we got a 50-minute break for lunch.
Generally, there are vegetables, meats, and sometimes it's like buns or noodles - and then basically it's like three vegetables, one meat, with rice. That's generally a meal.
Sometimes they have apples, pears, some fruits as additions to the meal.
The whole factory eats there. It's a huge canteen room.
If you have finished the meal earlier [than 50 minutes], you can take some sleep also. Sleep is really a thing in the factory. You can see that in the lounge - we have a lot of long sofas, but it's not really a very comfortable sofa. It's like you can feel the iron.
People just sit there and sleep. But you can't lay down. There are people walking around. If they see you lay down, they will swipe the ID and take a record of it. 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.
Leswing: How much money would they take if they caught you sleeping?
Zeng: It's not catching you sleeping - it's catching you laying. There are certain behaviors that you can't do. The same thing happens if you accidentally bring a phone into the factories. It's not even getting inside. It's like when you're past the metal detectors and it sounds and you pulled out your phone. You're on the record. Or your lighters. Any metal.
Leswing: Did you like the food, and were you charged for it?
Zeng: Yeah, we get charged for it, and it depends on what kind of food you choose. There are 5-yuan meals, 8-yuan meals. But that was inside the factories.
There are also restaurants inside the campus that people generally go eat at after they finish their work. Sometimes, if you're working on day shift, then that was more expensive. That was like up to 20 yuan, something like that.
Leswing: Was the food high-quality?
Zeng: I wouldn't say that. The chicken that I get ... I never see the breasts or thigh.
The chicken that I get ... I never see the breasts or thigh. It's always the neck or certain parts that you can't identify.
It's always the neck or certain parts that you can't identify. So I wouldn't say that's a very good meal. But it keeps you full, and you're very hungry, so it keeps you full anyway. It's reasonable. Not very good, but you have no other choice.
Leswing: Do you talk with people at lunch?
Zeng: If you are eating with your friends, sometimes you do. A lot of people just eat by themselves. You go get your meal, and then you eat, because it's like if you can eat it faster, you get more sleep.
After the lunch break, you work for two hours - two hours, and there is another 10 minutes in the middle of it.
Leswing: And by this point, you've worked six hours.
Zeng: After two more hours - and about eight hours total - working, then it depends on whether you need to do overtime or not.
If you don't need to, you're off. Everybody is off.
But generally, if you need to do overtime, it depends on if it's Monday to Thursday or it's Friday.
Friday only work two hours overtime. Monday to Thursday is 2.5 hours overtime work.
And then you do one whole day, eight hours, on Saturday also.
So total, the time workers spent in the factory is 12 hours, generally including the breaking times and lunchtime.
Leswing: Does that also include you waiting in line to go through a metal detector and that kind of stuff?
Zeng: Doesn't include. If you included those, you should include 30 minutes more.
Leswing: All right. So you're done. It's 7:30 in the morning. What do you do?
Zeng: I would generally go have another meal afterward. Then you take the shuttle bus, go back to your dorm, take a shower - if you're lucky, there is hot water. Sometimes there's no hot water or there's no water at all.
After a shower ... people either go to internet cafe, play video games, watch videos, something like that, or you lay down, watch videos on your phone.
Leswing: Pretty much everyone has a phone?
Zeng: You have a phone. The dorms provide Wi-Fi. But to access the Wi-Fi, you need to do something. You need to either download some apps for them or click something - comments or something - to earn some virtual coins.
You use the coins to get on the Wi-Fi. Twenty-four hours is 20 coins. And then downloading apps sometimes are like 20 to 30 coins or something. So is it you can buy coins - like I remember it's like 100 coins about 5 yuan, something like that. But a lot of people just keep downloading. It's like a business. You need to need to do that to get access to Wi-Fi.
In that same platform that you earn coins, there are free videos still available. So I think there's something good, that workers can watch videos for free.
I would like to go to bed about 10. You don't have a lot of time. You get very tired. And then most you can watch is one movie and then you really need to go to bed. And then the other day, you wake up at 6:30 again. And that's just a routine.
Leswing: Did you have any friends?
Zeng: I made friends with my roommates and also my coworkers on the same assembly line, but it's like the station around me, so we're sitting together. So those are very good friends.
And I also made some friends at the first couple of days, when we do some training. But during the training, you are together. Later, you get distributed.
Leswing: Your dorm roommates aren't going to be the same people.
Zeng: No, we don't work on the same assembly or nearby, and sometimes we work on different shifts. So sometimes I never see my roommates for a month because we are on a different shift, and they shift it every month.
Leswing: Do you know anyone there with a family?
Zeng: Yeah, they are with their girlfriends or their wives.
Sometimes they rent an apartment outside the campus. You can choose to do that, but it's very pricey. But if you have to, that's the only way. There are no dorm rooms there for a couple.
Leswing: So when you were on the assembly line with you with your mates, what did you talk about?
Zeng: That's where I find that the stereotypes about workers is not right. I had thought they [would be] uneducated. Wrong. They are talking about a lot of things. They talk about the China-US relationship, foreign relations in the South China Sea, because at that point there is news on that.
Leswing: Did your coworkers like their jobs?
Zeng: So I would say we don't like it and we don't hate it.
We just consider it a job that can give us money. Nobody enjoys the process, because the purpose of getting to work is waiting to get out.
The only thing that we're thinking about is really money, money, money. I need to get some money from my family, I need to support my life, support my kids.
That's the only thing in their mind. Sometimes they don't even care how tired they are.
Some workers have worked at different factories and think Pegatron has stricter management. You can't use your phone in their factory. You can't listen to music. Sometimes there are people walking around that don't allow you talk too loud.
So some workers have a comparison and think Pegatron has stricter controls. That's something that gets them annoyed.
Leswing: Is it a respected job? Is it a job that people go, "Oh, that's a decent way to earn a living"?
Zeng: I don't think so. People working the factories are also working on becoming a security guard, deliveryman, housekeeper. So it's the same kind of level of position. You don't see it as better.
I think the only way to look at the factory job is that you really keep people from being homeless. Because you need no skills, you just get into the factories. They don't even ask you any questions. During the interview, you can just get in that day. And then they take care of your meals and your dorm.
So it's like if you really have nowhere to go, if you're in the city alone and have no relatives to support you, go to the factory. You might earn some money, a little bit, and then gradually you can get your life together.
Leswing: Did anyone see it as a career?
Zeng: I don't think people really see it as a career.
The turnover rate is very high. It's very normal for workers to leave after two weeks or a month. Some workers get there and if they don't like it, they quit very quick.
But some people can stick there longer. And after one year, you can get promoted to become the line manager.
There are different structures. At the lowest level, you're an operator, and then you get into the multitask worker [position]. The third level is group leader, and then it's line manager. Then above is section manager, and then there's the division manager, and then there is the factory director.
There are workers that can really move up this chain. But we think that, at most, you can become a line manager.
But there are people who could get promoted by that chain, but not a lot of people can sustain that kind of life for that long time.
And then the pattern of Chinese migrant workers is that they go out to the city and do jobs for a year, and then they quit, then they go back home to stay one month for a new year or something like that, and then go out or find another job.
Leswing: Did your coworkers use Apple products?
Zeng: Some workers have iPhones, but not very many because of the monthly wage.
If they are affordable for workers, then they will buy Apple. But they are saying, "I really want that?" Can they save two months' wages to get an iPhone? They won't do that. The phones they generally use are Chinese productions like Oppo or something like that.
Leswing: Do the people working there at Pegatron know they're assembling Apple products?
Zeng: They know. We all know that we are assembling Apple products. We even know "this is the iPhone 6" or "this is the iPhone 7 that's coming out." Everybody knows.
Leswing: So what did you know when production switched from the iPhone 6 to the iPhone 7? Did people know that this was an unreleased product? Was there additional security around it?
Zeng: The controls gets more strict. They increased the sensitivity of the metal detectors.
So you know some girls, they have bras? And so they couldn't pass the door because they had the metal in the bra. And so a lot of the girls had to change all of the sudden that day because they increased the sensitivity.
And then you passed two security checks. There's a lot of security checks.
Here's how it works: Our factory, when we got to working, they are already assembling the infrastructure of the assembly line. They have this curtain circling it so you can't even see how the infrastructure is, right?
We were working at the same workshop, but there are people doing construction there.
And then after they've finished construction and need to move people in, we were moved out and working in another building of the factories. And then they prepare everything, and everybody moved back in.
And then producing iPhone 7 - at that point it was a trial production. That kind of experience is totally different from when we produced iPhone 6S because that's a whole day, and I consider it as torture.
Because one day for 12 hours, you only produce five phones. You sit there and have nothing to do, waiting for two hours. Sometimes they don't allow you to speak. 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.
When we were producing the iPhone 7, they have Apple staff there every single day to monitor the process. Because it's a new product, they want to see if there are new problems.
The management of the factory becomes very, very careful. It needs to be very, very clean. All the case-holders need to be in the exact position of where they should be. The process changed a lot because it used to be just an assembly line. They made it a clean room - like they want to keep the dust out.
So every time you get in, you need to have a roller to clean all the dust, and then you get it, and all of these procedures, you need to do that. Management is very careful, constantly walking around. You're not allowed to talk or sleep.
When you don't talk and are just sitting there for a couple of hours, you get sleepy. I was falling asleep three times one day, and every time when the multitask workers, the assistants of the line manager, would walk out and would spot me sleeping, they would say, "No, no, no," and wake me up. The third time he caught me sleeping, he said, "You, stand up." And so I was standing next to the assembly line, not even allowed to sit.
Leswing: Were you doing the same screw for the iPhone 7?
Zeng: No. At the later part of producing the iPhone 6S, I was switched to another station called camera cowling. So they have a protector on top of the camera, and I need to have the cowling fastened. It also was putting in two screws so the camera would be where it is.
Leswing: Cowling. That is a word I've never heard before!
Zeng: There's a lot of terms. There's a lot of terms.
Leswing: Do the factory workers - they obviously work for Pegatron - but do they think they work for Apple at some level?
Zeng: They definitely know they are producing Apple products and consider themselves a part of that process.
Leswing: How did you know that there was Apple staff?
Zeng: They tell you. They say, "The client is here." They call Apple "the client." Sometimes Apple staff comes to do an audit or something like that. They walk around the assembly line.
They say, 'The client is here.' They call Apple 'the client.' Sometimes Apple staff comes to do an audit or something like that. They walk around the assembly line.
They were always very serious about it, and we would be told, "The client is here."
Leswing: Do people who work for Pegatron know the Apple story? Here in the United States, Apple is seen as one of the important companies, something that drives us. You know, there's this whole legend about Steve Jobs and its current CEO Tim Cook. Are they aware of that?
Zeng: I don't think they understand Apple that much. I think the general concept is they know that Apple sells a lot of iPhones, that a lot of people consider it as something fancy. I think that's their understanding.
It depends on the worker. Some workers I know are real tech fans. There's one worker who sat next to me, he was 18. He had just gotten out of high school and was trying to get into college after his summer job. He was a big fan of Apple, so he could talk a lot about Apple.
Leswing: And did he think it was so cool that he was working on an iPhone that hadn't come out?
Zeng: Yeah, people sometimes considered it as a very cool thing - typically when they were working on an iPhone 7 and know it's not yet out.
Leswing: Overtime pay seems to be the big issue. It's the one China Labor Watch [an activist labor group that worked with Zeng] pushes - they had all these pay stubs, and it seems to be, you know, a quality-of-life issue. But it's also hard to explain.
Zeng: Apple has really been following the rules. They do pay 1.5 times pay when overtime is during your workday, and they double it when it's on Saturday. All the payments are legit. I would say they're following the policy.
[Editor's note: Apple told Business Insider that 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.]
But the overtime thing, from my experience, it's involuntary. 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?
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. I think that's the issue.
The overtime thing is also complicated because sometimes you hear about a worker who demands that "I want to work overtime. I want that money." But they are being pushed to that path because the base salary is just too low. I can't make a living without doing overtime, that's why I "volunteer," quote unquote, to do that. The factories know it also. The workers, too. They know that when you get into the factory, you need to do overtime to get your payment.
Leswing: So when you say overtime, does that mean over 60 hours a week?
Zeng: Over eight hours a day, that was overtime. Another thing is that when I was there, most of the time, it wasn't a busy season. A lot of the time shifts over 60 hours [a week] are when it's a busy season.
After I left factories, they started a massive production of the iPhone 7. And I still have a connection with workers there. They said that they start working on Sunday. And one worker who I talked to said he had been working for 11 days straight.
Leswing: Eleven days in a row?
Zeng: Yeah, consistently for 11 days. It's obviously over 60 hours when you start working on Sunday also. So I think they have a different standard during busy season and not busy season. 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. I don't know how the factory gets past that.
[Editor's note: Apple told Business Insider that it conducted 34 audits covering Pegatron workers, including 29 at facilities in China, including 16 at the ChangShou factory. Apple found 99% compliance with a 60-hour workweek.]
Leswing: Did you notice any negative effects from people working too many hours besides just sleep.
Zeng: I don't think you give workers enough time to do other stuff. The time left in your life is very, very limited. It's just a couple of hours. And then there's not much you can do. I consider that a problem.
In the new report, they said a lot of workers get opportunities for training in some programs - they can develop their careers and stuff like that. But when you are working 12 hours, you are exhausted. And the only thing you want is some rest, and there's not enough time for that.
Leswing: What if someone wanted to take a vacation?
Zeng: My friend said that when it's busy season, you can't take it. They just don't allow it. And even if it's not a busy season, when you request it, they will ask, "So what are you doing?"
But when it's not very busy, they sometimes grant it. I would say that the attitude is not very good. 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. They will have a very bad attitude towards you.
Leswing: Who was your boss?
Zeng: In the assembly line, the power structure is very clear. The person you receive direction from the most is your group leader. They give you demands. They are the ones who hold meetings after work to summarize today's performance. They are the ones who keep pushing you, saying, "We have 500 pieces left, keep working!"
The person you receive direction from the most is your group leader. They give you demands. They are the ones who hold meetings after work to summarize today's performance. They are the ones who keep pushing you, saying, 'We have 500 pieces left, keep working!'
The capacity of the whole campus, I think, is 100,000 [workers]. When I was there, there were about 70,000 workers. In Pegatron, they are building new buildings. They are expanding.
Leswing: Why don't Pegatron workers unionize? I understand obviously China has a different union system than the United States.
Zeng: There are a couple of reasons. As I mentioned, the only thing the worker thinks about is money. If unions can bring them money, they might want it. That's why in 2010 there was a big case in the Hainan auto factories.
And then they had a big movement and requested, "We need to have a union, we need to have our own elections," and stuff like that. But in that movement, you see that once workers get their money back, when they got their wages increased, they didn't care about the union thing. "As long as I get my money back, I don't care."
And the workers couldn't strike for seven days. These people need the money every single day. They can't afford to do a strike by themselves. Another thing is that I see there's no structure for being on strike or unionized. There's no leader. You need leadership for those people who go to the factories. They're just very, very ordinary people. You go to work, and then you work 12 hours, and then you get out. If there's nobody saying, "We need to do this stuff," then they just keep working.
Another point to point out is that the turnover rate is just so high. People react to disappointment by walking out - "I just leave the factory. I hate this place. I just go. There's other factories and other jobs. I just go."
So the high turnover rate plays a role. It's very hard for people to have that kind of unity. It's like, "I've worked with these people for a month, this guy is leaving tomorrow, and this guy arrived yesterday."
Leswing: Are there any open secrets at Pegatron?
Zeng: So we know that there are some stations on the assembly line where we know the jobs are easier than on other stations. There are some stations that you just need to put a sticker on.
There are some positions - for example, doing trash recycling - you don't have nothing to do. You just sit around for a while there until there's some trash to pick up and classify.
And so there are some stations that are easy, and those stations go to people the managers like. Sometimes they're girls. Most of the cases they go to girls, and the men are always doing the screwing. Yeah, it's always the screwing.
Leswing: Is there anything that Pegatron knows is like a bright-red line, like underage workers?
Zeng: I think they care about underage workers. I can see that they're doing stuff trying to control it.
They are very careful about safety training. That's part of training they do well, but that's just about safety. They only do two days of training, and the focus is on safety.
"We know that there are some stations on the assembly line where we know the jobs are easier than on other stations."
Leswing: What's the mobile platform called?
Zeng: I only remember the Chinese one. It's called 掌知识 (Zhang Zhishi). It's an online platform where Apple uploads a lot of security trainings, sometimes about careers.
Leswing: And it's uploaded by Apple?
Zeng: I think they said that they developed this platform with Apple. Workers can log in to learn about the material.
They scare you. The first day they said: "OK, everybody gets this QR code. Scan it on your phone and download this app. And if you don't download this app, you won't get distributed to the assembly line tomorrow."
So everybody downloaded it, and sometimes when you're working on the assembly line, the manager would say, "Has everybody downloaded this? Remember you need to download this."
After that second training, we got our clothes, our hats, our slippers - they're pink, and the hat is blue. The pants are blue, and then the slipper is dark.
Leswing: And you only get one of those?
Zeng: I only got one of those, so on the weekend you need to wash it. And sometimes people don't wash it for a whole week. You get sweaty. You get very stinky. Some peers get very stinky. But you only get one set - that's the thing.
I only got one of those, so on the weekend you need to wash it. And sometimes people don't wash it for a whole week. You get sweaty. You get very stinky. Some peers get very stinky. But you only get one set - that's the thing.
And you need to have the full set when you get into the factory. They're very, very strict about it.
Here's one detail I remember: When the subfactory's leader comes, they say, "Listen, are you pregnant? Raise your hand." And then nobody did. And then he said, "If you think you are going to be too tired standing up, you can come up to me now."
And he said, "If you are a student worker, if you are going to work here less than three months, please stand up." And then nobody stood up. The reason he did it is that if somebody stood up, they lost their job.
Leswing: Oh, wow.
Zeng: We also needed to get injections. We had to get vaccinated. But before we got vaccinated, they asked if you have any serious diseases or if you have something going on with your immune system, which was intended for HIV patients, please stand up. And he asked a few questions before we got the injections. I saw it as a violation of privacy because we were in a big room with more than 100 people.
The fourth day we came back and did more training.
Those trainings are more about Apple's standards. They said, "Here are a few things that our client cares about," including involuntary overtime and child workers. They listed the four or five core violations that Apple cares about.
There's all kinds of different trainings, even about building personal relationships and how to manage your money - all kinds of things. But I could see that the training was required by Apple, because after that training we had to do a written test, and the answers were all from the trainings.
We did a couple of tests because there are different trainings that are supposed to be done over several days. But we did them all at once and then took the exams. There's one exam that was very difficult. The first question was about translating terms from Chinese to English, and I didn't even understand some of the English.
Leswing: Your English is fantastic though.
Zeng: For the very hard test, they give you the answers and just said to write down what they told you. After all the tests, we have an evaluation on the training.
They gave us an evaluation - "how did you feel about the training?" They are very careful with that piece of paper. They said: "Don't make any mistakes. We need this paper to be very clean with no modifications on it."
It was a scale where one was the worst and five was the best. They said we could do four or five. And so everybody did four and five, and they submitted it.
Another thing to mention is the bonded labor. I still say that there are contractors of the suppliers who are holding workers IDs. In Pegatron, the workers come in different ways. Some workers are directly recruited. Some are referred by a subcontractor - Pegatron has a relationship with them. When they refer people, if those people can work in Pegatron over 20 days, Pegatron pays a certain amount of money for that referral. So it's a huge business. All the stores nearby [the factories] are referral companies.
I know all of the workers, some of my close friends are my roommates - they come from that kind of channel.
They were recruited by the subcontractor. You need to give your ID to them. And then if you are able to stay in the factory over 20 days, you get 800 yuan or something. It's a huge amount for [the workers], but it's the one-time payment.
So they get extra money by going that [referral] channel. It's a very complicated issue there.
Leswing: But people do have their ID held by the agents, by the subcontractors. Do you think they're spotting all violations?
Zeng: Pegatron has a survey system that accepts complaints from workers directly. That is a good system, but it has not been implemented in Pegatron factories, at least factories I worked at.
They have a complaint system, but who is handling those complaints? A factory worker. So you are submitting complaints of the factory to the factory staff.
I submitted my complaint saying that I had been forced to do overtime, I don't want to do that, but my manager didn't allow me to leave earlier.
And they don't want me to file a complaint here. So I don't see the system there is working. But I would say that if Apple does have a system that is directly reporting to Apple, that might be better, like what they have in Foxconn. It's a very concrete recommendation to Apple.
[Editor's note: Apple told Business Insider that it has employees on the ground at Pegatron every day to support its operations in addition to monitoring whether the factory is complying with Apple's standards.]
Leswing: Tell me about your first day at Pegatron.
Zeng: You show up in front of the factories and see a lot of people waiting in line with their luggage. There's two members of the staff sitting at a table with their computer. You just walk up to them and they ask you for your ID, they swipe it and record it in their computer, and then, later on, they ask for your hand. They look at your hands to see whether they are intact, and then they ask you to recite the English alphabet.
Zeng: Because you use English letters on the assembly line. For example, my station was called E26. Sometimes they need to use English letters.
Leswing: Do most Chinese people know the English alphabet?
Zeng: Some of them do. And if they really want to get this job, they will ask their peers to teach them. It's just 26 letters. Sometimes people get it wrong, but it's just a procedure. Even if you can barely finish it, they still let you in.
After, people take your fingerprints, and then you need to do a physical examination. You pay 70 yuan for the physical examination.
Leswing: You have to pay? What if you show up without money?
Zeng: You borrow money from other people.
They're looking for tattoos, blood, and other things. If your blood tests positive for HIV or you're pregnant, I don't think you're allowed.
For pregnant people, I'm sure you're not allowed. For HIV, I'm not sure. The doctor was very explicit, even before we paid. They said, "Listen, if you are pregnant or if you have a tattoo over 10 centimeters, you're not allowed to get in the factory, so don't bother to do the physical examination."
The next day, there's a lot of paperwork, for your bank account and stuff. And then we also need to do facial recognition because when you get inside the factories, they do facial recognition in addition to swiping your card.
You record that information, and they prepare your ID card for you.
On the third day, you start getting paid. After you sign the contracts, they start training you.
Leswing: So what are the main safety things?
Zeng: They let you know that if you are injured, you are able to go to the hospital and get reimbursed. So that was good. And they consider a lot of things to be "occupational injuries." For example, if you spill hot water when you are getting water from the fountain and then you get burned, they pay for it. If you break your leg when you are working downstairs inside the factories, they pay for it. And that's a good thing.
After the safety training, there was another training about your salary. It was about overtime, about Social Security, and about the mobile, the union WeChat platform. So they covered all those things, but the speaker goes very, very quickly.
I mean, I can tell he wasn't even in the mood to do it. I paid 100% attention trying to take notes, but I couldn't. It was too fast. The whole slideshow was finished in 20 minutes or something.
Leswing: And that was about your money.
Zeng: It's about my money! It's very important. It's about how I get paid. I learned about my overtime pay later on, on the mobile platform that had the slides on it.
Leswing: How much did you make for your six weeks there at Pegatron?
Zeng: I stayed there for one and a half months, or six weeks.
So one day they pay you monthly. So I get the first month is about 3100 yuan, so that's about $450.
Leswing: Not enough to buy an iPhone.
Zeng: Definitely not - and that is for a month's production. And then I get that half month, like 1500 yuan.
Leswing: And do you think that was in line with your coworkers there?
Zeng: Yeah, people are pretty much getting the same rate. But the number I'm giving to you is the base salary plus the overtime payment.
[Editor's note: Apple told Business Insider that the base wage at Pegatron has increased more than 50% in the last five years and is higher than the Shanghai minimum wage.]
The base salary is very low. The pay salary is 2320 yuan, which is set by the Shanghai city government. So that is just meeting the minimum wage. And then the over time, the payment is added on that.
That minimum wage is the same for everyone around the city. They always meet the minimum wage required by law.
Leswing: Here in the United States, we have President Trump now, and one of his big themes is bringing manufacturing back to the United States.
Zeng: From the labor perspective, I don't think it's very realistic for bringing labor-intensive manufacturers into the US. Why I'm saying that - just think about wages. Chinese people are getting 2320 yuan, which is about $400 per month.
How much are you going to pay for the US workers in terms of base salary?
If it really happened, if factories actually really moved to the US, I won't see it create a lot of jobs. I would see workers getting replaced by a lot of machines, because a lot of the work I see in the factory can actually be done by machine.
If it really happened, if factories actually really moved to the US, I won't see it create a lot of jobs. I would see workers getting replaced by a lot of machines, because a lot of the work I see in the factory can actually be done by machine.
The only reason why we do it is because the labor is even cheaper than the machine.
Leswing: What would you recommend for an American, a European, a customer who is worried about these human issues, how can they create change?
Zeng: This is a very tricky issue because I personally think a boycott or stopping the customers who are buying Apple products is not realistic. It's very hard to mobilize that much people to stop buying Apple.
Talk more about it. You do more posting to your social media, and be aware that every day when you use your iPhone, just think that there are a lot of people working day and night to produce this kind of piece - [he holds up his iPhone SE] - right now you're using. There are human hands behind this.