Wed, Jun 13, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Underpaid and exhausted:
The human cost of your Kindle

In Hengyang, China, there is a fatigued, disposable workforce assembling gadgets for Amazon, owned by the world’s richest man

By Gethin Chamberlain  /  The Guardian, in HENGYANG, China

Illustration: Mountain People

Five o’clock in the morning and the young woman’s eyelids are drooping. All night she has been removing spots of dust from Amazon smart speakers with a toothbrush. Time seems to crawl. Now she is overwhelmed with exhaustion.

She works on, more and more slowly, until she can do no more. She looks around the workshop. Other workers have rested their heads on the bench. She slumps forward and falls asleep.

Let us call the young woman Alexa. Alexa, what are you doing here? For an answer, we must fast forward a couple of months to Monday last week.

It is an overcast morning in the city of Hengyang, in China’s Hunan Province. More than 7 million people live in this city, the second-largest in the province. It is known locally as the Wild Goose City for the birds that used to stop off on their southerly migration, but many people even within China would struggle to find it on a map.

The morning is warm, but overcast, with a light haze that could be fog or pollution. The road to the Foxconn factory in Baishazhou Industrial Park is wide and lined with well-cared-for plants. There is a steady stream of cars, motorbikes and buses heading toward the factory, which sits back from the road behind a large gate. Blue-uniformed security staff keep watch on those coming in and the street outside.

Dozens of workers are arriving, casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Most are young and there is a good mixture of women and men. Ahead of them lies a 60-hour week, eight regular hours for five days, plus two more of overtime each day and another 10 on Saturday.

They are to be expected to hit tough targets and must ask permission to use the toilets. The overtime — up to 80 hours a month — is far in excess of the 36 hours stipulated in Chinese labor laws, but companies can and do seek exemptions and workers want the overtime, to boost their basic pay.

These are the people who are making the smart speakers and tablets that Amazon hopes to make a fixture in millions more homes around the world this year: the Echo and Echo Dot — which both spring to life when the user addresses them as Alexa — and the Kindles.

It has been a year since Amazon sealed a deal with Foxconn — known as Hon Hai Precision Industry in Taiwan — to ramp up its hardware production in Hengyang, with the firm reportedly adding 30 new production lines and creating 15,000 jobs.

Foxconn is China’s largest single private employer, and in March it reported a 4.2 percent increase in profits, with net income rising to £1.84 billion (US$2.47 billion) in the last three quarters of last year.

Profits for the first quarter of this year were £605 million and its chief executive, Terry Gou (郭台銘), has a fortune reported to be about £5.3 billion, but it is said to be keen to diversify to reduce its reliance on Apple and it is investing heavily in the Hengyang plant to meet the demand from Amazon.

The Foxconn factory in Hengyang relies on the tried and tested formula of low wages and long hours, but here there is another element: the extensive use of agency workers who do not have the security of a regular job.

These employees — known as dispatch workers in China — are hired from labor companies as an off-the-shelf workforce. They are generally slightly better-paid than permanent members of staff, but they get no sick pay or holiday pay, and can be laid off without any pay at all during quiet months when production drops off.

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