Sadly, with all the problems in the U.S., the horrors of the globalized factory system are not getting any attention these days, not that they received enough attention before Trump. But the lives of people producing material for your daily consumption is still hard and brutal. It’s also sometimes quite hard to find out the details because of the oppressive regimes that ensure that your products remain cheap by repressing unions and other forms of dissent. So this piece, in translation from a Hong Kong publication, that interviews a woman who works in the infamous Chinese Foxconn factory that had to put up nets so that workers would stop killing themselves, is very valuable.
“Back when I first started at Foxconn, I just cried for days,” Zhi said. “At home I had never suffered through anything like that.” Upon first entering the factory, she was assigned a job on the production line. Each shift was 12 hours, from 8am to 8pm. Other than half-hour meal breaks at noon and dusk, she had to stand the whole time. “When I first arrived, I had no idea—I just had a pair of shoes with small heels that I had brought from home. After a day of standing, my feet were really feeling it, let me tell you.”
“Once I was off work, it was still a half-hour walk back to where I was living, so I would take off my shoes and walk home barefoot. After a couple of days, I finally had some time off to go buy a pair of cloth shoes. Those days, I’d be on my feet for a dozen hours or so, nodding off over and over again in the afternoon. I couldn’t help it, so I’d just pinch my hand to try and stay awake.”
“Transitioning from just being in school, everything came at me pretty fast. You’re like a robot: in the same place day after day, repeating the same motion thousands of times over. Other than eating and going to the toilet, all your time is spent staring at those products. Back then the management was pretty strict,” Zhi explained. “You couldn’t even grow out your fingernails. If they grew out even a little bit, you’d hear about it. Whether it was someone from quality control, a plant inspector, or the line manager—everyone and their uncle would tell you off.”
“The cafeteria was a battlefield in those days. You only had 30 minutes. There were a ton of people, lots of cutting in line. Sometimes people would lose their cool, and if you got in a fight you didn’t get to eat.”
Zhi Ying’s first child arrived in 2014. Following her maternity leave, she quickly became pregnant with her second child. Pregnant bodies aren’t made for the production line.
“When I gave birth to Miao Miao I was still managing the assembly line, but I couldn’t handle it once I was pregnant again,” Zhi explained. “The production department isn’t very flexible. When you’re on-site overseeing things, there’s noise, there’s dust. You’ve got to manage the workers. If something goes sideways, you need to handle it. You’ve got to maintain production capacity while ensuring everyone’s safety. Every day you need to be on-site constantly, running back and forth. But when you’re pregnant, things get complicated. It’s not ideal when you’re constantly asking for leave to go to a maternity check-up.”
The production line doesn’t let up just because a worker happens to be pregnant, nor will operations be temporarily suspended if a worker needs to look after a sick child. It’s common for frontline workers to leave the production line after giving birth.
“Anybody who hasn’t had children simply can’t understand,” Zhi said. “They think you’re just taking up somebody else’s spot. On the production line, there’s almost nobody who would bring their kid with them to work, from what I’ve seen. Usually it’s only the office workers, or a foreman here and there.”
I will say once again that there’s no reason these conditions have to exist. There is plenty that we as Americans (and other nations) can do about them. But we choose not to because we basically don’t care and are far more concerned with cheap fast fashion than people killing themselves because they have to make it.