Customers queue for iPhone 5 while workers riot at Chinese factory

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 26 2012 12:13 p.m. MDT

In this Monday Sept. 24, 2012 mobile phone photo, police in anti-riot suits cordon off a road near Foxconn's plant in Taiyuan, capital of Northern China's Shanxi province. The company that makes Apple's iPhones suspended production at a factory in China on Monday after a brawl by as many as 2,000 employees at a nearby dormitory injured 40 people. The facility will reopen Tuesday.

The Associated Press

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As thousands of Americans waited in line Sunday for the release of the iPhone 5, a massive brawl unfolded at a Chinese factory where iPhones and other Apple products are made. According to a report from official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, the fight started late Saturday night in the dormitory of a Foxconn plant in the northern city of Taiyuan, and escalated into a riot involving more than 1,000 workers.

Approximately 10,000 of the factory’s 79,000 employees watched the fight, which took nearly 5,000 policemen and nine hours to quell. An official investigation is pending as to the cause, with Xinhua speculating that differences between workers from two different provinces led to the incident. A New York Times’ report quoted a Foxconn employee who said that the fight began with a clash between workers and security guards. Forty people were injured.

Speaking with the Wall Street Journal on Monday, Foxconn spokesman, Louis Woo, said the Taiyuan plant would "take a day off", although a government official quoted by Xinhua explicitly denied media reports of a work stoppage. Photos from the riot circulating on the Internet show overturned vehicles, smashed windows, a broken security gate, and other signs of damage to factory facilities.

Foxconn is both the largest private employer and the largest exporter in China, employing about 1.2 million workers in 20 facilities scattered across the country. Headquartered in Taiwan as Hon Hai Precision Industry Group, Co., Ltd., the company is the largest manufacturer of electronic components in the world.

For years the company has been dogged by criticism of its labor practices. In March of this year, the Fair Labor Association released a report based on 3,000 hours of in-factory observation, hundreds of on- and off-site interviews and a survey of 35,500 Foxconn employees. The report found, among other things, that 65 percent of workers surveyed felt pain after a full day’s work and 43 percent had seen or experienced an accident at work. Most workers had at some point gone more than ten days without a day off and workweeks averaged 56 hours even though Chinese law allows no more than 49.

Despite these conditions, half of the workers surveyed felt their hours were reasonable and one-third actually preferred to work more. Only one-fifth felt that their hours were too long. One reason for this may be that at some Foxconn factories virtually all of the employees are migrant workers. These workers leave their homes and families in the countryside to find work in big cities in order to earn as much money as fast as possible for themselves and their families.

Foxconn came under intense scrutiny in 2010 after a wave of worker suicides, and just weeks ago the state-run People’s Daily reported that several vocational schools in Jiangsu province had required students to intern at Foxconn.

Despite some improvements and commitments to more, the focus on Foxconn will likely continue as it remains a supplier of choice to such global tech powerhouses as not only Apple, but also Amazon, Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Toshiba and many others.

David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at davidbward@gmail.com

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