An Observer From Shenzhen—Thoughts on Apple’s Recent Bad Press

by Randy Murray on February 2, 2012

I’ve been following the recent articles and reports on Apple and manufacturing in China. I’ve heard some ugly terms thrown about, including “slavery.”

If true, it’s shocking and disappointing. But I fear that it is a mix of hyperbole, cultural differences, and yes, some worker abuses. Apple appears to be doing the right things to improve conditions, but that cannot overcome the differences in culture and economic realities. I suspect, from first hand accounts I’ve heard, that things are not nearly as dire as the press is painting them.

It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago China was a closed, hard-line communist country. The vast majority of its citizens were working in rural settings that we haven’t seen here in the Western world for over a hundred years. They owned virtually nothing. Now, just a few years later, if you visit a Chinese city you’ll be hard pressed know who is a citizen and who is a visitor by how they dress and what they carry.

My close friend, Elizabethe Kramer, one of the industry’s top Agile consultants, just returned from a two month business trip to China. She spent almost the entire time, from before Thanksgiving to the middle of January, in Shenzhen. She did not visit the Foxconn factories or have any dealings with Apple. She did, however, work extensively inside ZTE, a very large Chinese telecommunications company. And she shared her observations with me.

Elizabethe told me about the team of over 100 developers that she introduced to Agile concepts. She noted that they were all highly educated, almost all with college degrees and many with masters degrees. They did not, however, speak English, and she had to rely on her partner for translation. She was impressed by their friendliness, their love of all things American and Western, and their “sweetness.” She also noted that both the individuals and the larger enterprise were “highly inefficient.” “The city and buildings are new and modern, but they’re not well designed or had much thought put into them for how they’d be used.”

ZTE workers have access to nearby apartments owned by ZTE at very low rates compared to Western standards. The workers on Elizabethe’s team were all very young, but almost all married, with the requisite one child, and part of a two income, multi-generation family living in a 2-3 bedroom apartment. ZTE provides free busing to and from work and a four-story cafeteria (with the top floor being table service) for workers. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served to over 12,000 employees daily. Elizabethe ate there as well and said meals were typically under $2 USD, which the workers claimed was a fair value.

She also noted that all workers took an extended lunch break and “siesta” lasting from one and a half to two and a half hours. Most ate quickly and then napped on their personal cots. Workers clocked out for these breaks. When she mentioned this to other consultants who were doing business in other places in China they reported that this was the norm virtually everywhere.

Workers were required to work “overtime” Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, working from 8:30 A.M. to 8 P.M., with the aforementioned breaks. Other days they were finished by 5:30 PM and left promptly. Many also worked Saturdays and some Sundays. Since a grandmother at home dealt with child rearing and the household management, the workers didn’t seem stressed by the work requirements or complain.

By Western standards, Chinese workers are paid very low wages. She was told that the average worker in China makes only around $60 per month. Reports about Foxconn factory workers place their income around $22 per day, which, while low by Western standards, place them at much higher than average wages within China. Where Elizabethe was consulting these highly educated and trained workers were making more, but certainly nowhere close to what US workers in the telecom industry would be making.

While Elizabethe was tasked with introducing the latest Agile development strategies, she did note that workers, while intelligent, were not accustomed to thinking and acting on their own. She told me that no one could even print out any documents without special permission.

She also visited ZTE facilities in Nanjing and Shanghai and found that the company invested in creating good working environments.

As a side note, while delivering a presentation in Guangzhou, Elizabethe asked about iPhones, more to test their English comprehension than anything else. She received immediate applause and laughter. Many waived their iPhones in the air. While iPhones are expensive, they are highly desired, as are all Apple products. I queried my daughter’s freshman college roommate, also from China, about her new Macbook Pro and asked about what her friends used. She gave me a blank look and told me, “everyone uses Apple.” I interpreted that as meaning all of her friends from relatively wealthy families use Apple products, but I take it as a sign that this massive market is ripe for Apple expansion. Elizabethe also said she saw no Android phones or cases for them while the stall were filled with iPhone cases, including this incredibly wonderful one. No Blackberries, either.

Do workers in Foxconn factories who build products for Apple, Dell, HP, and others, work long hours at tedious tasks? Yes they do. Do they work for a fraction of what a worker in the US, Japan, or even Korea would? Yes they do?

Are they being enslaved? Clearly, they are not.

I suspect that a lot of the heat from the recent press comes from a lack of understanding about Chinese culture, their rapid change from manual agrarian life to high-tech manufacturing, and the significant differences and scales of our economies. I certainly do not approve of abusing workers, but I do not think one can insist on universal pay scales and work limitations immediately. While I have no direct experience with Apple’s supplier responsibility programs, I do have experience with other major retailers’ programs. Companies like Apple work hard to make changes, improve conditions, and develop relationships that can, over time, change entire industries, countries, and cultures.

The An Observer From Shenzhen—Thoughts on Apple’s Recent Bad Press by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris February 2, 2012 at 10:01 am

Nice article. I agree with most of your points, except the third paragraph about China. By “just a few years ago,” you probably mean “thirty years ago.” The majority of China’s population is in cities now. For the last thirty years, rural villages have been emptied of the young and capable. They’ve flocked to big cities to work in factories that power the manufacturing engine of China. In the myriad factory towns in Guangdong province, you can still tell who is a migrant worker and who is a local by how they dress, how rich they are, how they speak, and how they carry themselves.

As for China being a “closed, hard-line Communist” nation, it was that way thirty years ago, but ever since the opening and reform period of the late 1970s, China has been the most capitalist and entrepreneurial nation on Earth, even more so than the U.S., Japan, and Europe. It was “Communist” in name only. Today, provincial officials compete to see who can create the highest GDP growth rates in the country, while trampling over citizens’ property rights and disregarding environmental damage.


Randy Murray February 2, 2012 at 10:42 am

Yes, to me, “just a few years ago” fits with 30 years!

China still has a vast rural population, still over 50% of their totals. Those in the new cities are often separated from families and in what we’d call “future shock,” a state of dislocation and separation. That will take some time to settle down.

Thanks for commenting!


Elizabethe Kramer February 7, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I like your straightforward writing style. Thanks for taking the time to ask about my time in Shenzhen. The Chinese I met did some really nice things to welcome a tall American woman who could not seem to pronounce their language correctly despite an extensive set of Learn Chinese in Your Car CDs.

I hope to see and work with ZTE teams again-they are so eager to learn and use Agile to improve their product quality and time to market. Two months immersed in Chinese culture was a life-changing opportunity.


Randy Murray February 7, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Your experience there, directly with Chinese workers, is enlightening. There’s been too much heat and not enough of that light, lately. Thanks for sharing it with me!


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