I have no idea which editor assigned David Barboza of the New York Times to write up an interview with a Foxconn night shift worker, but the result is a very interesting feature article.
It’s basically a timeline, recounting a “night in the life” of a typical worker, in this case a kid from the Northeast named Yuan Yandong. Here’s a snippet:
7:30 p.m. | | The Shift Begins
Mr. Yuan wakes at 6:10 p.m. at his small apartment, a 20-minute walk from Foxconn’s campus. He arrives at the factory at 6:50 for a quick free meal at the canteen, then starts work at 7:30.
His task is to help complete 1,600 hard drives — his workshop’s daily quota — and to make sure every one is perfect. Seated in the middle of the assembly line in his black Foxconn sports shirt, cotton slacks and company-mandated white plastic slippers, he waits for the conveyor belt to deliver a partly assembled rectangular hard drive to his station. He places two plastic chips inside the drive’s casing, inserts a device that redirects light in the drive and then fastens four screws with an electric screwdriver before sending the drive down the line. He has exactly one minute to complete the multistep task.
It goes on from there, recounting Yuan’s lunch break, his personal finances, etc. in a very straightforward manner.
I’m not sure how well this feature will be received, since there are a lot of folks out there who may see this as “too neutral” in that it fails to criticize Foxconn.
That’s actually one of the reasons I like it. Plenty of judgmental ink has been spilled on Foxconn and the suicides, including statistics about overtime and wages. This article adds some useful information to the dialog, including discussion of Yuan’s expenses and rate of savings (he claims to set aside nearly USD 100 per month). Moreover, it gives one a sense of the daily life of a worker at one of these factories, although it sounds like Yuan has a much better setup than others I’ve read about.
One thing still missing from the discussion is a sense of the dehumanizing nature of assembly line work. After reading about Yuan’s situation, I’m tempted to say “That doesn’t sound so awful,” and compared to a lot of other jobs, particularly those that require strenuous physical labor, he’s not doing too bad.
On the other hand, I don’t think any of the material I’ve read on these factories adequately conveys what it’s like to be on an assembly line. From a psychological and emotional standpoint, I think it’s much worse than most of us white collar types can imagine.
I know I sound like a guilty, white collar bleeding heart type who has no concrete connection to labor. That’s probably an accurate description.
I’ve never had a job in a factory and therefore have no personal experience to fall back on here, so feel free to take all this with some skepticism. The closest I came to an assembly line was my brief stint after college as a 411 “information” telephone operator (114 in China). The job was horrible, and I’ve always found it difficult explaining why.
Disclaimer: I am most assuredly not comparing my relatively cushy job at the phone company to that of a factory worker. This is simply the closest thing I can dredge up in my attempt to empathize, so please cut me a little slack.
A basic description of the phone company job makes it seem fine. I had to sit in a chair for hours on end in front of a keyboard, wearing a headset. People would call in with requests, I would perform database searches, give them the information, and then I’d move on to the next caller.
Sounds sort of like any other job out there, right? Office chair, computer, headset, climate-controlled surroundings — what was the problem? Was I working 16-hour shifts? No, I wasn’t overworked. Was I paid slave wages? No, I think I got $8/hour, which at the time was not bad.
The reason why that job was so horrible was the result of a few things: repetition, time pressure, and focus. Allow me a brief explanation:
1. Repetition — The 411 job involved an endless stream of information requests, such as “I need the number to the In ‘N Out Burger on Radford,” or “What’s the address of the DMV in Hawthorne?” The variance in requests was insignificant, and they all melded together very quickly into a fog of blather. In this sense, the calls came at me like they were widgets on a conveyor belt.
2. Time Pressure — The repetition was bad enough, but the phone company made it worse by getting all scientific on our asses. They monitored everything, reduced the job down to a series of metrics, and pitted us individually against each other, and collectively against other shifts and offices in the region. At the time, I found it very 1984-ish. I dimly recall that they would post our statistics (time per call, etc.) on the wall so we would be constantly aware that fractions of seconds counted and that Big Brother was watching, always.
Time is money, so ultimately I understand all this. But the time pressure was monstrous. I think every worker in that job (and maybe in every assembly line job) has a constant sense of anxiety in the pit of their stomach, a panicky sense that the clock is ticking and that disaster is just a tiny misstep away.
If you’ve every worked on a tight deadline, you know what I mean. Just pretend that you have the “deadline feeling” during your entire shift, every second, and you will understand what I mean.
3. Focus — Because the job entailed database searches and being on the phone with people, it was impossible to chat with co-workers, listen to music, or even daydream while “plugged in.” This was intolerable. As boring as the job was, and it was mind-numbingly so, one could not take the edge off with any kind of distraction whatsoever. You had to be 100% focused on that menial task, or your numbers would suffer. This is the part of the experience I find it most difficult to convey, as for me it was a kind of mental torture — in a sense, while at work and plugged in, my brain was locked up and unable to function normally.
OK, I like to believe that if I multiply all my kvetching about the phone company experience by 100, maybe I can begin to understand the dehumanizing aspects of these assembly line jobs. Needless to say, back then the rest of my life (outside the “factory”) was a hell of a lot better than it is for these kids down South.
I don’t think most of us (particularly those who write about it!) understand what it feels like to work one of these factory jobs. I think that there is a lot more going on psychologically and emotionally than most of us realize, and that these pressures are a significant contribution to these suicides. It’s not just about the hours worked and the wages, but what your brain and body are doing while on the job.