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Inside story of Foxconn shrouded in secrecy

By Stan Grant, CNN
February 6, 2012 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
  • Miss Chen is one more than a million Chinese workers for Foxconn
  • The company makes electronic products for world's leading brands, notably Apple
  • Workers' rights groups allege long, unpredictable hours, no talking on factory floor
  • CNN's Stan Grant notes being followed by white car on day of filming

Chengdu, China (CNN) -- We meet her by chance on the side of a road. She looks the very model of a Chinese factory worker: young, vibrant, dressed in the cheap brand-name knockoff fashions so common of poor rural villages.

Does she work at Foxconn, we ask.

"Yes" came the reply.

A relief after hours spent looking and not despairing of meeting anyone. Getting her to talk though would be a different matter. If caught, she says, she faces not just the loss of a job but criminal prosecution. Of course we would protect her identity and take her somewhere away from prying eyes. It is enough to sway her, and as we will find, she has a lot to say.

We can't name her, so let's call her Miss Chen. She is one of more than a million Chinese workers for Foxconn, a company that makes electronics products for some of the world's leading brands, notably partnering with industry giant Apple.

There's a lot of heat under this relationship right now. The media is ablaze with criticism of Foxconn's working conditions, and Apple can't avoid the fallout.

Workers complain of long hours, militant culture

Unbearably long and unpredictable hours, a militaristic culture, no talking on the factory floor, low wages -- these are just some of the accusations from workers' rights groups.

Apple criticized for factory conditions
Report: Chinese workers threaten suicide
Apple: Made in China

Foxconn and Apple have defended themselves. Foxconn argues its conditions are better than most in China and boasts of swimming pools, health centers and counselors.

In a statement issued Sunday, Apple said: "We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made.

"Our suppliers must live up to these requirements if they want to keep doing business with Apple."

Chen remains unimpressed. "Apple might care, but I don't see any of that care," she says.

Over steaming, spicy Sichuan hot pot, a local specialty, Chen tells us of a culture of overwork, of feeling like 'an animal,' poor food, low pay and stress. Workers who complain are told, 'If you don't like it, leave,'" she says. In China there is always someone to take your place.

"At Foxconn we have a saying, she says, women work like men and work like machines. A better way of putting it is that women work like men and men work like animals."

Work, work, work. That is her life, she says. She regularly clocks up to 60 hours a week and says that she works many more to get precious overtime pay. She says she gets about 1300 RMB -- about US$200 -- a month.

"It's so boring, I can't bear it anymore. Everyday was like: I get off from work, and I go to bed. I get up in the morning, and I go to work. It became my daily routine and I almost felt like I was some kind of animal," she says.

"Animal" is a word she repeats a lot. Foxconn, not exactly a zoo or cage, does like to make sure it controls its workers. Chen takes us past the dormitory building where she sleeps and eats. We also drive by the factory itself, a sprawling mini-city, with armed security. Workers come and go in shifts, and when approached they run away.

Apple might care, but I don't see any of that care
Miss Chen, worker at Foxconn

On the day we filmed there, we were followed by a mysterious white car. Wherever we went, it went. Then it was joined by another. We approached to ask why, but the driver refused to acknowledge us.

We learned later that this was Chinese state security tracking us, as we filmed stories about Tibetan uprising and Foxconn. This is common in China now as part of a nationwide crackdown on media coverage.

What wasn't common was being stopped trying to leave the Chengdu airport, detained, taken to a police station, questioned for hours on end and having some of our video confiscated.

In China, often secrecy and intimidation go hand in hand. As it is for factory girls, so it is for the media.

Some argue that factories like Foxconn do China a service. In this way hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Yes, it is true Foxconn provides jobs -- more than a million in China -- and there are tens of thousands lining up to fill any vacancies.

Apple mania has gripped China too. Desperate customers crowd shops and cause mini-riots with the release of any new product.

Chen is one voice, but her experiences are shared by other disgruntled workers. In 2010, Chinese media reported that a number of Foxconn staff had killed themselves. Just weeks ago many others at a factory in Wuhan threatened suicide after being told they would be transferred. Foxconn resolved the dispute and says it strives to keep all of its workers happy.

Chen though is not happy; she has had enough. Working hour on hour to make a product she could never afford for a company that makes billions of dollars a year is, she says, too high a price to pay.

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