Tag Archives: Shenzhen

Where Does My Stuff Come From?

Why did I write yesterday’s story?

The idea came from something I first saw on the Daily Show. In the segment, Jon Stewart describes the conditions at the “Fear Factory”. Workers are underpaid, forced to work long shifts in total silence. They live in dorms with 13-14 strangers in a 10′ x 10′ room, with bunks stacked 6 high.

Some of the workers jumped from the top of the building rather than continuing to work under those conditions. Their supervisors put up nets to catch them. The nets didn’t work.

This is the Shenzhen factory of Foxconn, and they make most of the electronics we know and love.

Foxconn has contracts with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, ASUS, HP, Samsung, Toshiba, the list goes on. They make the iPad, the iPhone, the Xbox, the Kindle I bought my dad for Christmas, and maybe even the netbook I’m posting from. My Kindle Fire was not made by Foxconn, but they have a contract for the new 10.1” version.

I knew my stuff came from China, and so did you. I think we all have this idea that conditions aren’t quite as good as America, but that things are basically the same. We envision large efficient machines, or thousands of workers in lab coats. We even resent these people, for taking the job from us.

I type for a living. I write code, e-mails, short-stories, novels and this blog. I’m  at a risk for carpal-tunnel or some other repetitive stress injury if I’m not careful, but that’s probably a long way off. By 26, my current age, many of these workers have ruined their hands forever. Their hands shake like someone in their seventies with crippling arthritis. And then they’re out of a job.

When I first heard these stories it hit me like a punch in the gut. I’m not an Apple guy, but I do love my gadgets as much as the next person. I like that the price of these toys has been coming down. I even have a little of the tech-geek alpha male in me, wanting to have the latest thing and the widest array of technology. I’m one of the reasons these people have to work harder than I can possibly imagine. I’m complicit in their suffering, whether I knew it or not.

Apple is investigating the working conditions at this and other factories. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the other companies that partner with Foxconn do the same. I could be comforted by this. I could think Apple will do the right thing, and that I don’t need worry about it. I think that’s what a lot of us do. We hear about something that makes us angry, maybe a little guilty, and we let it go at the first hint of something being done about it, with no follow-through.

That’s not good enough.

My wife and I have formed a Facebook group, Consumers for Fairness in Manufacturing and Labor (CFML). Our challenge is simple:

1) Pick ONE electronic device you own (cell phone, eReader, tablet, computer, etc.). It can be your latest gadget, or a device you use all the time.

2) Find out where your device was made.

3) Find out how much the workers who made your device are paid, the hours they work, and the conditions they work and live in.

4) Post what you’ve learned on the Facebook page, this blog or share it with your friends.

We’ll be on a lighter note tomorrow on the blog, but I really hope you’ll take some time to learn more about this. Thanks in advance!

NOTE: I’ve been learning a lot about this subject the last couple of weeks, and have posted a number of links in the Facebook group. One that I would highlight in particular is “Mr. Daisey and The Apple Factory”, which was featured recently on This American Life. The NY Times featured Foxconn as well in an article last Thursday found here.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under CFML

Competitive Edge

UPDATE 01/06/15: You can download an eBook version of this story for FREE on the Internet Archive. Enjoy!

NOTE:

I’ll explain more tomorrow, but for now please enjoy. Please feel free to leave any comments\questions below.

Competitive Edge

Yao Hang-Shien sat in his concrete walled office about to light a cigar when Chang burst in. His younger subordinate was always coming into his office unannounced, but Shien chose to accept it since nothing he’d said had changed Chang’s habits. His only form of objection was to continue lighting his cigar without looking up, taking several short puffs before fixing his gaze upward.

Chang was in his late thirties and thin. Despite his supervisory position, he almost never wore a tie or long sleeves to work, and often kept the top two buttons of his shirt unbuttoned. It was deathly hot in the factory, even back in the offices, so again Shien accepted this behavior without comment. Privately he thought it was doubtful Chang would move up in the company if he kept dressing that way, but that was not his problem.

In contrast, Shien sported a glossy black tie, polished leather shoes, a clean and pressed white shirt, and creased dress pants. His suit jacket was draped over the back of his chair, but he could toss it on in a practiced motion should the need arise. The concrete walled room was just one level above the main factory floor and was his day to day office. When customers flew in to meet with him he used the nicer office three flights up. The desk was nearly twice the size of the one he sat behind now, made from mahogany, with leather chairs on either side. There was a full bar, couch, and wall to wall windows with a sweeping view of Shenzhen.

That was the proper place for Shien to be enjoying a cigar, rather than this windowless cold room with plastic chairs, but the necessities of his job meant some sacrifices.

“Yes, Chang?” He asked, not particularly interested.

“It’s about the Amy’s, sir.”

It was always about the Amy’s.

“What is it this time?”

Chang wiped his brow nervously, his dark black hair, only now showing the slightest touches of gray, matting from sweat. Shien, though only ten years Chang’s senior, suffered from male pattern baldness, with only a few thin stands crossing the divide between the sides of his head.

“We lost four more of them last night.” Chang, despite his urgency, seemed reluctant to speak.

Shien’s eyebrows raised, “Lost?”

“They jumped, sir.”

“We have the nets for that sort of thing,” Shien said, his voice maintaining a steady calm.

Chang nodded, “Yes I know. They were working for a while.” His hands didn’t quite seem to know where to rest in his lap. He placed them on his knees, then clasped them back in front of his chest. Shien had rarely seen the younger man so nervous before, and he was enjoying it.

“Yes?” He spoke softly, allowing a hint of menace into his voice.

Once Chang found the words, they poured out of him, “The nets catch them alright, but then one jumps on top of the last one. We put the nets too low. They can build up enough force if they land just right…”

Shien raised a hand, “I get the idea. Presumably there was a fifth Amy who survived.”

“Yes,” Chang nodded, “we have her in isolation for now. Do you want to see her?”

Shien shook his head, “Talking to one Amy is pretty much like talking to another. You can put her to sleep. It’s not kind to keep an animal caged for long.”

He took another long puff of his cigar and tapped the ashes onto his desk. The surface was faux wood plastic, and was tinged gray in the spot where he had ashed his cigars for many years.

“We need more variety in the herd,” Chang said, his voice growing more confident.

Shien raised a tired hand again, “I’ve explained this to you before, Chang. The Amy’s are bred from the very best stock. They are detail-oriented but submissive, and they can work for hours without rest. They are competitive enough to keep up our quotas but not enough to foster aggression. And since they are all the same it makes it that much harder for one of them to be dominant. If we introduced new breeds into the herd it would hurt the integrity we’ve worked so hard to maintain.”

“But they’re burning out faster than before,” Chang said pulling out a small tablet computer. With a couple of flicks of his finger he brought up a chart and laid it on Shien’s desk. “They only last about eighteen months now before needing to be put to sleep. By the end their hands are so ruined they can’t even pick up a tool. It’s getting more expensive to replace them.”

“The basic building blocks are still very cheap to acquire, and we have an ample supply. Every Amy carries thousands of spare parts for her future offspring,” Shien said, half looking at the graph. “That’s why we use the Amy’s in the first place.”

“But we could build machines…”

“Machines are expensive and difficult to replace. It would take months of engineering to build what we can train Amy to do in a day. Machines need regular servicing, whereas the Amy’s require minimal care, and are cheap to replace. All of this you know, Chang,” Shien tapped his cigar again, the ashes collecting on the surface of Chang’s tablet. The gesture was deliberate and dismissive, but Chang ignored it, brushing the ashes aside and putting the tablet back in his lap.

“Have you been to the dormitories lately? They’re becoming more crowded. These last couple of orders have forced us to increase our workforce by twenty percent.”

Shien’s eyes narrowed, “There are ten beds in each of those dormitories, and ten Amy’s in each room?”

“Yes,” Chang said.

Shien mentally shook his head at the younger man’s ignorance, “There’s room for two in each of those beds. If they sleep with their heads at opposite ends we can double our workforce before needing to expand.”

The lights flickered as he spoke, and moments later an alarm sounded. Shien stamped out his cigar angrily on the desk and threw on his jacket, bursting past Chang and out his double doors. The upper level was square, with his office comprising one side. The hallway was lined with metal railings painted white, looking down over the vast open space of the lobby. The stairway was normally retracted so nothing on the ground level could get up to the second level without a supervisor’s permission. Shien pushed a button on the railing to lower the stairs, beginning to walk down even before they had fully deployed. He jumped the last couple of feet and started running toward the end of the lobby, the younger Chang breathing heavily to keep up with him.

The doors that led to the long factory floor were sealed. Two small windows afforded the only view of the thousands of work benches that lay beyond. Shien ignored these, pulling out an access card from his jacket pocket and swiping it in a card reader to unseal the doors. He grabbed both metal handles of the doors and flung them wide open.

A frightened technician was huddled in a corner near the alarm button, and Shien strode over to him without a moment’s hesitation. He shoved the man aside and punched the button off savagely. The room was silent. This distraction dealt with, Shien turned to assess the source of the alarm.

The room was silent. The factory floor was always silent. At every work bench an Amy would be soldering a chip to a circuit board, or assembling a case for a cell phone. This room in particular had been working on motherboards for tablet computers like the one Chang used, This silence was different, more permanent than the usual enforced silence.

One-thousand and twenty-four Amy’s lay slumped over their benches, their throats slit from ear to ear. They were naked, none of the Amy’s ever wore clothing. All of the Amy’s were the same, after all, they were clones.

Shien lifted the closest Amy’s head and thrust it violently backward so that her body fell in a lump on the hard cement floor. Her eyes were half-open, looking in the direction of the door as Chang entered. The younger man was stunned to silence for the first time in his life, something that Shien found useful at this particular moment.

He picked up the circuit board the Amy’s had been working on and flinched as the edge of the board nicked his fingers. The green was tinged in the dark red of blood.

“Damn engineers!” He cursed, “they had to make those tablets thinner. These boards are as sharp as a knife edge. It was only a matter of time before the Amy’s figured it out.”

He tossed the board back on the workbench. Chang’s eyes never left the fallen Amy. Her body was thirteen, though in actuality she was probably only a couple of months old. Her black hair was like straw and cut short. Her eyes were black and lifeless. The hint of breasts just starting to develop were stained with blood from the six inch gash across her neck.

Shien put a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “It’s alright. They probably only ruined 5% of the boards. The rest can be cleaned. All circuit boards have a little bit of blood and sweat on them.”

Chang nodded, though was still unable to speak. Shien continued.

“It’s gonna give us a devil of a time meeting the Christmas rush though, but scarcity does drive up value and we’ll still be able to make the secondary quotas. This could actually solve a number of our problems.”

Chang nodded again. He looked at Shien, his eyes wide and his breathing heavy but Shien’s face remained the vision of calm.

“I’ll take you to lunch, Chang.” Shien said, grabbing the man’s tablet. “Somewhere new. That’ll do your nerves some good.” With a couple of taps Shien brought up the dinner spinner app, gave the tablet a shake, then nodded with approval at the result.

13 Comments

Filed under CFML, Short Stories