From iPhones, to Bose headphones, to HP screens, to Amazon Kindles, it is no secret that parts of your electronics devices and domestic appliances can be manufactured and assembled in factories across coastal and inland China. When these products hit their record sales at the end of each year, workers in China work day and night for over 250 hours a month to complete demanding orders coming from the Global North.
Based on open source information, workers testimonies, and first-hand data from on-site investigations, this report presents an overview of working conditions in the consumer electronics industry in China as well as case studies of several factories that produce popular electronics products for top brands. Particularly, we want to point out how the vast oscillation of order volumes impacts labor conditions. The market boom associated with elevated product demand during peak season legitimizes the massive hiring and layoff of dispatch workers and promotes the use of excessive overtime and harsh working conditions that are left unregulated. This shows how factories and governments have created a labor regime where workers are forced to consent to disposability and give up their ability to demand for better.
For those who have a general knowledge of the working conditions at electronics factories in China, the problems identified in this report are nothing new. Low basic salary, excessive overtime, illegal use of student interns, hiring discrimination, deception from labor brokers, and high labor intensity are all present within this industry. Yet this time, we at China Labor Watch (CLW) witnessed the increasingly important role played by social media in creating and circulating information related to the factories. Factories and brokers use Douyin (Tiktok in domestic China) as a hiring channel, while workers also use Douyin to share first-hand experience working in these factories. Even at brokers’ hiring videos that present a factory solely in a positive light, in the comment area, one can see both present and former workers sharing the actual situation they experience that suggest otherwise. In October and November last year when Covid-19 outbreak, worker exodus and protest happened in Zhengzhou Foxconn, it was also through social media posts that the workers documented the incidents and shared with the general public what happened in the closed loop production zone to which outsiders had no access. All these inspired us to survey labor issues self-reported by workers on social media and explore new methods of factory investigation.
This new research is a survey of the working conditions at major manufacturing sites in China that produce parts and assemble products of smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs, and earphones, among other products, for top technology brands including but not limited to Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung, HP, Dell, Acer, Bose, and Lenovo. The research also attempts to illustrate how various sales and events in the global north can increase product demand and consequently impact labor conditions within factories in China.
In the United States the start of the Christmas shopping season occurs on Black Friday, a term referring to the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday that occurs in late November. With stores across the nation offering extensive deals for consumers to kickstart the giving season, this practice understandably creates a strong promotion of various goods, including electronic products. This is swiftly followed by another symbolic day called Cyber Monday, an event occuring the Monday after Thanksgiving which promotes virtual deals for shoppers. A similar pattern exists in Europe. Sales of consumer electronics reach the highest of the year during the Christmas holiday season and also peaks around the week of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Given this context, it is expected that before this season major brands use the momentum to increase sales. Apple for one usually releases new iPhone series right before this season, with the releases landing primarily in September and October. Although the time for new product releases vary from brand to brand, a look into the market provides important clues for understanding the fluctuation of orders and production pattern.
There are three stages of research: analysis of social media posts related to consumer electronics factories in China, case studies through online research, and in-person factory investigation.
First, CLW documented cases of self-reported labor rights violations and abuses exposed by workers on popular social media platforms, such as Sina Weibo, Baidu Tieba, Wechat, Douyin, Kuaishou, and Zhihu, from 2019-2023. It spans across 50 consumer electronics manufacturers in China and provides a picture of the industry from the perspective of the workers. The information collected was categorized according to the different labor rights violations that occurred. The total number of complaints for each category was then counted to create a tally of the most common transgressions. This survey helps to understand the extensive nature of the problems facing workers within this sector.
Second, CLW identified four factories as targets of investigation who are suppliers of popular consumer electronics products: BOE (Hefei), Foxconn (Taiyuan), Jabil Circuit (Guangzhou), and Foxconn (Zhengzhou). We monitored and analyzed social media posting related to these factories and other open-source data of labor complaints over the 8 months period. The open-source data include worker’s factory descriptions and working journals, short videos of work experience, a worker’s communication records with the management, job posting by the factory and labor agencies, company news and announcements, and journalist interviews. This stage, we also collect clues of labor violations that are not necessarily complained about by workers on social media. We also chatted or interviewed with workers from the four factories. From these, CLW was able to elaborate on the working conditions with supplementary information and workers’ narratives.
Third, our investigator conducted undercover investigations at two of the most prevalent suppliers within the consumer electronic industry, Foxconn (Chengdu) and Pegatron (Kunshan), to provide a more comprehensive and detailed reporting of working conditions.
The problems identified in this report are deep-rooted and require industry-wide systemic change. Our goal is not to argue that one factory has better conditions than another, but to point out a pattern of production that centers profits while disregarding workers’ wellbeing. Major problems include but are not limited to the following:
- Low basic wages and long working hours.
- Dispatch workers are denied the right to rest, lack access to social benefits, and face increasing vulnerability to wage theft.
- Illegal use of student interns who are required to work overtime and do work unrelated to their studies.
- High labor intensity that includes long hours of constant standing at some positions, night shifts, lack of break time during work, short meal breaks, and high assembly speed and production quota.
- Workplace bullying and verbal abuse by line leaders.
- Discrimination in recruitment, especially based on age and ethnicity.
In light of the findings from this report and previous investigation of electronics factories, we provide the following recommendations to the suppliers, brands, the Chinese governments, and workers.
To electronics suppliers and brands:
- Abide by labor laws in China, particularly in regards to working hours, social insurance contributions, and the use of dispatch workers.
- Stop forcing interns to work overtime and cease the coercive use of interns for work unrelated to their professional study.
- Stop recruitment discrimination based on age, gender, ethnicity, and religion. Any form of job discrimination is against the Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China.
- Factories have the responsibility to clear out deceptive brokers from the labor market and increase transparency on hiring needs and working conditions so that brokers cannot take advantage of information discrepancy to deceive workers. If factories are keen on making a blacklist of undesirable workers, they should put just as much effort in publishing a blacklist of problematic brokers and labor agencies.
- Improve the management ability of line leaders and strictly prohibit workplace bullying and verbal abuses.
- Incorporate break times during working hours and create longer meal breaks.
- Workers — both regular and dispatch —should be able to take sick leaves without encountering difficulties. The procedure for applying for sick leaves should be simplified, and line leaders should be prohibited from blocking workers’ requests for a sick leave.
- Assembly lines should be re-organized and take workers’ feelings into account. No workers have to stand consecutively for their entire shift.
- Health checks should be conducted for both employees and workers who are quitting, particularly those exposed to hazardous substances.
To Chinese governments:
- Raise minimum wages to reflect living costs. No workers should be required to work overtime in order to meet basic costs of living.
- Stop deploying police to harass workers when they defend their rights legally.
- Stop repressing labor rights activists and organizations who stand in solidarity with workers.
- Continue to use social media to voice grievances. Meanwhile, we encourage workers to provide clues of labor violations to China Labor Watch and other labor monitoring organizations.
- Know your rights. Read the labor contract carefully to make sure it includes all the promised benefits. Document abusive behaviors and illegal practices at the factory so you have evidence when you need to defend your rights.
- Learn about the grievance mechanisms that exist at the workplace, and try them, before assessing their effectiveness. Report workplace bullying and verbal abuses to the relevant departments and higher rank managers.
It’s often said that working in an electronics factory you see no future. The entry-level production jobs require no skills or education. Positions provide you with a bit of money and nothing else. Still, assembly line jobs attract hundreds of thousands of people around the country everyday. Some see these jobs as temporary money solutions during their career transition. Some are young college students wanting to save money during summer or winter holidays. Some are rural youths who come to cities to become independent adults and send money back to their home. Others are mothers wanting to earn more when their children are away at school. Many of them need such a job and require the seasonal flexibility of it. However, the alienating nature of repetitive, unskilled, assembly line jobs does not mean that the factories and labor agencies are free from any responsibilities to provide a decent and healthy working environment. Workers deserve a job where they can have enough rest, can take time to eat, can go to the bathroom when they need to, can ask for a sick leave with ease, can work with dignity without any bullying or verbal abuses, and can earn enough living wage without having to work overtime.