By Michael Martina
TAIYUAN, China, Sept 25 A brawl at a Foxconn
factory that disrupted production at Apple's main China supplier
for 24 hours highlights regimented dormitory life and thuggish
security as major sources of labour tension in China.
While unrest often flares in China as low-paid workers
agitate for better pay and conditions, the conflict at Foxconn's
Taiyuan facility in northern China was notable for its scale and
severity, even if not directly related to shop-floor conditions.
It marked a blow to Apple's top supplier as it ramps up
production to meet orders for the iPhone 5 and seeks to
rehabilitate its image after a labour audit this year found
Foxconn does not say which of its plants supply Apple but an
employee told Reuters that the Taiyuan plant was among those
that assembled and made parts for the iPhone 5. Some workers
said they were making the iPhone 4s and some reported an
increase in production targets of about 20 percent since June.
Details of the melee remain sketchy as police and company
officials investigate, but employees interviewed by Reuters said
tension between workers and security guards boiled over on
Sunday evening after a worker was severely beaten.
That led to thousands joining the fracas and about 40 people
were injured, according to Foxconn and Chinese media, while
thousands of police were deployed to quell the unrest.
A 19-year-old worker in hospital with back and hand injuries
said he was angered by the rough security guards and a culture
of managers cursing workers.
"It doesn't matter who you are, you shouldn't curse people
like that," said the worker surnamed Liu. "They do it all the
time. If it happens over a long time, it builds up and of course
it makes people angry and they go crazy like that."
The movement of workers from other Foxconn plants to Taiyuan
may have contributed to friction between groups of labourers
facing heavier workloads and crowded dormitories as production
intensified to meet Apple targets, rights groups and workers
It was quiet on Tuesday outside the factory, with police
keeping watch. Gates had been torn off hinges and windows
smashed, and a voice on a loop recording broadcast over a loud
speaker appealed for people to maintain order.
"There were thousands of bystanders and they just couldn't
control it," said a 29-year-old worker who would only give his
surname Xiang. "It was just smash and destroy."
Foxconn Technology Group of Taiwan, the trading name of Hon
Hai Precision Industry Co, is the world's largest
contract maker of electronics for global brands such as Hewlett
Packard, Nokia and Dell as well as Apple
Foxconn said on Tuesday the one-day closure would not
disrupt supplies from the factory where 79,000 people work.
"PRODUCT SHORTAGES, PRESSURE"
The company said the unrest was triggered by a personal
dispute that spun out of control, rather than conditions in the
Louis Woo, a Foxconn spokesman, said the security personnel
involved were under contract with a third party at a privately
managed factory dormitory, adding that their attitude was "not
In the past, security personnel working for Foxconn have
been known for bullying and as tough enforcers of efforts to
stop theft, including the pilfering of Apple prototypes, with
workers being subjected to stringent body searches.
In 2010, guards working for the company roughed up a Reuters
journalist outside a factory in Shenzhen.
Several Taiyuan workers said some tension had arisen because
of the deployment of workers from other Foxconn plants to
bolster manpower in Taiyuan, with friction between workers from
different provinces including Henan and Shandong.
"This happens in many companies, especially big ones," Woo
said of the movement of workers around the country.
"We have 1.1 million workers in total in China, the
advantage is we can mobilise our workers when one business line
suddenly needs more people. Relocation happens very often."
Some labour groups say ultimate responsibility for strains
rests with Apple, which they say puts profit above workers'
welfare despite pledges to cut overtime hours and improve
"The whole Apple production chain has problems," said Li
Qiang, with the New York-based China Labor Watch, that has
scrutinised Apple and Foxconn for years.
"Its sales and marketing strategy involves launching a
product suddenly, without maintaining much inventory ... so the
subsequent product shortages help build demand, but also place
extreme pressures on workers."
Foxconn has begun a series of reforms after facing
accusations of poor conditions and mistreatment of workers.
Li Qiang, the labour activist, said workers at Foxconn's
giant plant in Zhengzhou, in Henan province, were largely
working on the iPhone 5, and were also facing great pressure,
with 70 hours a week common, despite pledges by Apple and
Foxconn to cap work at 60 hours.