The People Who Made Your iPhone Just Went On Strike

There’s a huge labor strike happening at Foxconn’s Zhenzhou factory in China, involving thousands of workers.

There’s a massive labor strike happening right now at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou factory, China Labor Watch reports, and it’s very much tied to the way the iPhone 5 is produced, as Gizmodo noticed.

The 3,000-4,000 striking workers mostly come from the onsite quality control line, where workers were most directly affected by “overly strict demands on product quality” implemented by Foxconn over the holiday:

According to workers, multiple iPhone 5 production lines from various factory buildings were in a state of paralysis for the entire day. It was reported that factory management and Apple, despite design defects, raised strict quality demands on workers, including indentations standards of 0.02mm and demands related to scratches on frames and back covers. With such demands, employees could not even turn out iPhones that met the standard. This led to a tremendous amount of pressure on workers. On top of this, they were not permitted to have a vacation during the holiday.

That account echoes what an undercover journalist from the Shanghai Morning Post that worked at Foxconn for two weeks reported:

I’m being assigned to mark placement points on the iPhone 5 back-plate using an oil-based paint pen. I’m being scolded many times for spilling too much oil on the markings. My roommate has being assigned to paste the masking tapes of not more than 5mm wide on the right spots that I have marked. And he has being scolded many times for pasting them too slow. Our supervisor said that these works [sic] were actually being assigned to females workers with nimbler fingers, but due to too many workers have resigned lately they have no choice but to assign these jobs to male workers.

We pointed out before that one of the things missing from Apple’s breathless talk of the exquisite, fantastical and ultra-precise way that the iPhone 5 is manufactured — a key marketing point for the phone — is any sense of the human labor that goes into its production. You might think, actually, based on the iPhone’s landing page, that not a single living thing touches an iPhone before it’s pulled out of the box. That the vision from Jony Ive’s brain is directly transmogrified into reality by an army of computers and ever-more-sophisticated robots, or cyborg Oompa Loompas.

The iPhone 5, literally produced on a pedestal according to Apple’s marketing materials.

So, the striking thing about these accounts — beyond Apple and Foxconn’s continued labor problems — is that they indicate that the process of making an iPhone is becoming too difficult for mere humans. Indentation standards of 0.02mm! That’s 25 times smaller than a grain of salt. Apple might compare an iPhone 5 to a “finely crafted watch,” evoking images of an old Swiss guy hunched over a bunch as he toils away, but numbers like that are not the result of artful human craftmanship — that’s cold machine precision. And each passing generation of the iPhone is only going to get thinner and lighter. The components will be smaller, more complex and more delicate, requiring even greater precision to assemble. How long before it’s totally impossible for a human being to put together an iPhone?

A labor force composed entirely of machines, designed to avoid the complications of messy human labor has been on the horizon for a long time — Foxconn’s CEO said last year that “manag[ing] one million animals gives me a headache” and revealed plans to have a million robots in use by 2014. It just so happens that a robot workforce might be necessary to eliminate more than one people problem for Apple and Foxconn.

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