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World

What You Need To Know About Foxconn

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

To learn more about Foxconn and the company's factories in China, I talked to Brian Merchant. He's a tech reporter for Vice and he recently wrote a book on the history of the iPhone.

BRIAN MERCHANT: Foxconn is the biggest employer on mainland China with over a million employees. That's more employees than every private corporation on the planet except for maybe Walmart and McDonald's. So it's huge. It's one of the most important companies, contractors and employers to China, so it commands a massive political clout there.

MCEVERS: Last year you actually went to a Foxconn factory, which I understand is not an easy thing for a journalist to do. Just describe the factory for us.

MERCHANT: So Foxconn's most famous factory is called Longhua. And it's outside of Shenzhen, which is sort of just across from Hong Kong. And Longhua is the chief factory. It's believed to house up to 450,000 workers who live work, eat, sleep, do everything on site.

MCEVERS: And this place was very much in the news in 2010 because of some suicides at this factory, right?

MERCHANT: Right. So Foxconn, one of its calling cards is it's sort of known in China and without now for being this purveyor of sort of ruthless efficiency. Workers migrate there from rural parts of China with little experience. And then they're set to work for 10 to 12 hours a day, often on their feet, doing this repetitive task over and over and over. This iPhone, for example, is coming down the assembly line and they might solder in one particular component, pass it on. They might wipe and polish the screen and pass it on.

And, you know, this is really meticulous, really difficult work. And if they screw up their management would be liable to berate them. So you had this really intense psychological environment. And in 2010 it started just breaking a lot of these workers. Really tragically, there was a suicide epidemic that broke out in 2010 where 14 people in the same year, in the same factory all committed suicide.

MCEVERS: Did things get better after that?

MERCHANT: So that's why I went to investigate, to see what, you know, Apple had done, what Foxconn had done. And things have not really gotten all that much better. Wages are a little bit higher. They provided things like counselors on site. But sort of the systemic issue, the fact that you have these very aggressive supervisors who are really pushing these workers, that culture persists. And the people that I interviewed told me that just a couple months before I showed up last year there was another very public, very tragic suicide for much that reason.

MCEVERS: Getting back to this factory in Wisconsin that was announced yesterday, it's obviously a lot smaller than the factories in China that you've described. What do you think the plan is with this expansion to the U.S.? What's the idea there?

MERCHANT: Well, there's a lot of speculation that Foxconn is looking to become more than sort of the world's gadget manufacturer. And maybe it wants to start to begin to, you know, experiment with technologies of its own and maybe become sort of a brand name eventually. This could be seen as a step towards that, getting some awareness in the American market. This is also part of a push that Foxconn has made to open up factories around the world.

The bulk of its manufacturing is still done in China, but it has opened up factories in Brazil, in Eastern Europe. It has some in Mexico. It bought out Sharp, and now it has factories in Japan. So it is sort of making this international, global push where it's sort of expanding its portfolio. It might also be trying to develop political relationships with, you know, really high-profile politicians like Donald - I mean, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, announced this deal himself with Paul Ryan and Scott Walker. So it's hard to imagine a more high-profile sort of political gambit for a company to make than this.

MCEVERS: Can you imagine it being culturally difficult to operate a factory in the United States where there are different rules and regulations?

MERCHANT: Yeah. Well, I think that if we do see a lot of Americans employed here - which is still very much an open question because the other thing we have to think about when we think about Foxconn is the fact that its promises do not always live up to what actually happens. For instance, it's long promised this factory in Pennsylvania which never really materialized. So it's hard to say what the labor landscape will actually look like here. It could be interesting to see how that sort of mentality of driving and maximizing labor efficiency will play out here? But I kind of have a feeling that they're going to be kind of on their best behavior. They're going to want to put their best foot forward because it's going to be very public.

MCEVERS: Vice technology reporter Brian Merchant. His book is "The One Device: The Secret History Of The iPhone." Thank you so much.

MERCHANT: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.