The Foxconn Night Shift

Industrial Scene, Pittsburgh - Aaron Harry Gorson - 1928

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.



16 Comments

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  1. King Tubby

    Okay Stan. You lived in the non-unionised US. Before my illustrious academic career and throne inheritance, I worked in a bloody abattoir.

    Sounds bad. Not really. 1969. Picked up by the company bus. Wandered around the butchery for the first hour…sold a bit of pot to the punters.

    Morning tea…about an hour.

    Pushed a few cattle carcasses around….crikey….lunch, about a 1.30 break.

    About another hour of minimal work and the company bus back to the city centre.

    Earned more in a day than office workers did in a week.

    Unfortunately, an insurance company hired me and my income dropped considerably. Consequently, I was forced to take up pot dealing full-time, and then developed a franchise for the local tax office and social security departments.

    True story.

    You were exploited.

    • Jones

      Yeah, $18 an hour standing by a pulping machine in a paper mill. I had a friend who’s sole job was to put tape around the windows of HMMWVs prior to them being painted. $16 an hour. Factory jobs rock as far as pay is concerned. Usually get overtime, too.

  2. Jones

    “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. ”

    Basically, when you first start, you’re excited about having a job. The job seems easy enough once you get into routine. Pay (at least here) is usually pretty damn good. Then, after a while, you get use to the the job. It becomes routine, as I mentioned earlier, which helps you out a lot but the redundancy is killer. Showing up every day, being part of the machine, same movements, over and over and over for hours. Usually it’s too loud for a conversation, or you’re not near anyone anyway. You’re just stuck there, bored, robotic movements for hours on end. It’s pretty psychologically demanding. Physically demanding if you’re not really one to stand up for an extended period of time.

    So yeah, a brief glimpse at the job, it sounds easy and possibly fun. I find challenging myself to see how accurately and quickly I can do something over and over in a row to be kind of fun. It’s just that it gets old really fast.

  3. King Tubby

    Basically, we are talking about Fordism and its precursor Taylorism (Frederick Taylor’s 1911 The Principles of Scientific Management….time and motion, the strict separation of the managerial and manual aspects of production. Go to wiki.
    Fordism added the insight that slightly higher wages for production line workers would actually increase domestic consumption.

    Such approaches to labour management are not just restricted to the production of physical commodities. They are also evident in the service sector today, notably in the domestic and offshore call centre industry in India and Anglophone Africa.

    Scripts and pressure to service as many customers as possible in a shift.

    Now, call centres. There is an area of the global service industry which China in will have as much success as its football team.

    Never thought I would identify one.

  4. Between layoffs and going to school in Detroit – had the chance to work 3rd shift factory jobs – from working a dye press to hand assembling parts for Jeeps (non union, minimum wage), it beat working retail – but was not as fun as working at Comerica Park (pushing supply carts and working conession stands).

    It is interesting to note that there is a level to which human labor is still cheaper than robotic or mechanized assembly lines – then again, the ability to use the lash and whip does help to keep the “labor pool” docile – for a time.

  5. Jones

    I worked a printing press for a while. Horrible job. A dollar or two over. I guess a chance of losing fingers. I’ve also worked retail, clerical, security, production line, even commercial fishing in Alaska. Commercial fishing was the best-paying job I had, and also the most ridiculously miserable and dangerous job I’ve ever had. Pay made up for it, but I guess that’s because I left unscathed, comparatively-speaking. It never drove me to suicide, though. More so the opposite.

    • Goodness

      Commercial fishing up in Alaska? I heard that wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be because while you got paid handsomely, everything up there was really expensive.

      • Jones

        Oh, it was very expensive. Very much so. I’m not sure what it was like in the cities. The town I was existed purely for fishing, and there was just one 20 mile stretch of road to a tiny airport. Aside from that road, there were no roads in or out. It was all flying or boat from there. A cheeseburger at the local restaurant was $14. A beer was about $7 a bottle. Dr. Pepper (absolutely necessary for me to survive) thankfully wasn’t but about ten cents or so more expensive.

        But, most of the time we were busy with something or in the boat. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to blow all your cash. Plus our captain (I don’t know about others) was really good at having huge boxes of food sent up to us. Other than that, it was Salmon (and the occasional others, even once a nice Halibut) all day, every day.

  6. pug_ster

    I think the problem is not what happens at work, but rather what happens what happens after work. Most people here go back home and to their families after work but these Foxconn workers doesn’t have that option.

  7. lolz

    The summer of my freshman year in college I was late to apply for internships, so I ended up signing up with a temp agency in order to get some income and experience. That summer I had two jobs in NH, one was a strictly assembly line type of job putting together electric power plug parts. The other was data entry.

    Both jobs were extremely monotonous but I actually liked the power plug job better because I was able to interact with the fellow workers during breaks. For 15 minutes in the morning and the afternoon (we all punched our cards at 8am and punched out at 5pm) we talked and played frisbee outside. That was the best part of the job.

    Some of the full timers (Vietnamese mainly) tried hard to go for double shifts so they can get a lot more pay. They even brought in their families to work at the plant. In general they worked their asses off not much unlike the FOXCONN folks. The plant supervisor was a major bitch. But then the full timers had to kiss her ass so that they could get assigned to 2nd shift for overtime.

    A few years ago I was told that the plant was closed and the operation was moved to mexico. I guess everyone was laid off.

  8. 上班!

    been thinking alot about the song of the article,

    first choice was Devo, working in a coal mine

    Bairen what is the song of the article, am thinking David Bowie,

    五毛党

  9. bai ren

    hey i have done “The body shop” you know, that company that doesnt test soap on animals… the sheraton wall center night shift and hell the most difficult paper due tomorrow shifts.
    I AM UNDER PRESSURElike mr. bowie!!!!
    On the level factory shift work in china doesnt pay so it certianly sucks total balls. In canada my cousin said he didnt understand why I and other went to uni because manual work paid so well in comparison to the type of work grads can get. wtf he does understand world econ
    五毛党4 ever my twittering biznatch!
    how many ppl at the wang ba do you see reading han hanÉ ZERO
    praize to wester propaganda masters! they are my idols! my common sence leaders!!! my money makers!!!

  10. I worked for £3’s an hour (rising to £5 an hour after the Labour government brought in the minimum wage) as a temp labourer in multiple factory jobs every summer until I graduated from university. The one thing I can say for it was that the time went pretty quickly, since your hands would simply go into automatic mode. I can’t say I will ever miss it though.

    I also worked at Foxconn, but that’s a different story.