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

Alexa’s diary makes no happier reading the following day. A woman of about 45 tells her how she has been scolded because she is not fast enough: “It might be because she was getting older so her speed was slower and her reactions were slower. When the line leader was telling her off, she started crying. After I returned to the dorm, an older woman said that last time the line leader told her off, she also cried.”

She describes long nights of repetitive and relentless work, with fellow workers close to falling asleep on their feet.

During a break at about midnight, she sees that “many people were resting on the assembly line and sleeping, while others had pushed together some chairs and were sleeping on those. Some had even stacked together some foam boards and slept on top of them.”

She finds little relief on returning to the dormitories, where she writes that there is no emergency escape plan in case of fire and “escape routes are unlabeled.”

Workers complain about the living conditions, including leaks in the roof and lights in the showers not working.

Alexa’s diary records her own frustrations on the production line and how she is overwhelmed by tiredness: “In my mind, I was both furious and lamenting as my hands continued the repetitive motions. My hands started feeling sore, but I managed to make it to 3am.”

“Around 4am, the workers across from me stopped working. I continued observing. The workers across from me told me I didn’t need to watch anymore, as the quota had already been reached,” she said. “At this time, I saw that some of the people in the work positions behind us had also stopped and were sitting due to lack of work. I felt very tired so I rested my head on the assembly line. After a while, the line technician came over and tapped me and said I couldn’t sleep on the assembly line, so I sat up again.”

At the end of the shift, Alexa leaves the workshop and goes to collect her phone from her locker: “There were a lot of people squatting or sitting on the curbside, eating a boxed lunch or playing with their phones. They all looked exhausted.”

Talk in the factory is of agency workers being laid off without pay during quiet periods: 700 in April and last month, and 2,700 in January and February.

However, among the workers there is no great simmering anger, no burning resentment. Few have heard of Amazon or Bezos. They are not expecting very much and are not particularly disappointed when not very much is exactly what Foxconn and Amazon give them.

One 32-year-old married man said he can earn a basic 2,000 yuan a month making Kindles, but even with overtime taking it up to about US$422, it is not enough.

“Currently, the wages are very low. I hope to be able to earn around 3,000 to 5,000 yuan a month, although I doubt I can earn this on a consistent basis,” he said.

At least it is better than being a dispatch worker, he said — “The factory just fires them.”

However, a 19-year-old dispatch worker disagreed. He said he could earn 145 yuan a day if he works a couple of hours’ overtime and just accepts it when he is laid off: “The factory will schedule holidays for dispatch workers. About half a month to a month. I just stay at home. It is OK.”

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