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

Most earn between 2,000 and 3,000 yuan, with permanent staff earning between 2,000 and 2,500 yuan. Last year, the average wage for a worker in Hengyang was 4,647 yuan a month.

Pay rates have rocketed in China in recent years, but Hunan remains one of the provinces with the lowest wages, and the minimum in Hengyang — 1,280 yuan a month — is barely half that in Shenzhen, where Foxconn’s Apple factory is based.

That Shenzhen factory has been the subject of years of criticism for its treatment of staff manufacturing iPhones and other Apple devices, with 14 suicides in 2010 prompting the installation of netting around the factory dormitories to catch workers jumping from the roofs.

Now rewind again, back to March. It is early evening and Alexa is getting off the bus and entering the factory for the night shift. She has secured a job as a dispatch worker through the Qizhong labor company — one of six supplying the factory — and has joined the production line making Amazon’s mini smart speaker, the Echo Dot.

Alexa looks much like the other young women around her, but she has a secret: Alexa has been sent in undercover by the US-based labor rights investigator China Labor Watch (CLW) to find out what is going on behind the security gate.

It is the first time anyone has investigated Amazon’s production lines, and CLW has teamed up with the Observer (and the Sunday Mirror) to publish the findings.

Its own report — Amazon Profits from Secretly Oppressing its Supplier’s Workers — was published online on Saturday last week.

Alexa is early, like all the other workers. They know that they must leave time to clear security and be at their workstations for the 8pm start, although they will not be paid for turning up early. She notices that the temperature inside the workshops is noticeably higher than outside and the anti-static gloves she has to wear quickly make her hands sweat.

Every day when she returns to the company dormitory she shares with five other women, she jots down what she has seen in her diary: the monotonous work; the colleagues complaining about sore backs and the bright lights that make their eyes tired; the overwhelming sense of exhaustion. She writes that workers must ask permission from a supervisor to go to the toilet and how some workers are left in tears when they are told off by their line manager.

Today, Alexa has to clean 1,400 Echo Dot speakers with a toothbrush dipped in rubbing alcohol to remove any specks of dust. Four-and-a-half hours into the shift, she is already flagging.

“I was already so tired and my movements grew slower,” she wrote. “I brushed with less and less force. There were 20 or 30 speakers building up in front of me that I had yet to brush clean.”

“The speakers that remained to be cleaned kept building up in front of me. The line technician came over and told me to brush faster and that my movements were too slow ... but I no longer had any strength,” she said.

Another day, she chats to an older woman sitting opposite her.

“The woman across from me said that she had been brushing for so long that her hand was growing numb, her neck was sore, her back was sore, her eyes couldn’t see clearly and her vision was getting worse,” she wrote.

Another worker tells her she is also suffering: “While working at the same work position and doing the same motions over and over again each day, she felt exhausted and her back was sore and her neck, back and arms could barely take it any more.”

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