Jenny Chan, Mark Selden, and Pun Ngai

Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers

Haymarket Books, 2020

302 pages


Reviewed by Anathasia Citra and Grace Amin

You will find a direct voice about the struggles, hopes, dreams, and acts of exploitation in this book. Chan, Selden, and Ngai conduct deep research and face-to-face interviews to expose the dehumanizing acts of Foxconn, a multinational electronics contract manufacturer, the company that mass-produces the iPhone. As mentioned in the first chapter, Tian Yu made a suicide attempt that changed her life forever. She is one of the workers who is experiencing heavy pressure because working hours are tight, discipline is very harsh, and social life is almost non-existent. This 17-year-old girl jumped from the fourth floor of Foxconn Factory Dormitory on March 17, 2010. She was paralyzed from the waist down while another 14 of 18 workers who attempted suicide that year were dead.

The author discusses the background of the founder and CEO of Foxconn, Terry Gou, and the journey of the Foxconn Company from its inception to the present day and the mobility of Chinese labor and the rise of the new working class is elegantly explained in this chapter in Chapter Two. They mention that Foxconn Company was able to expand its investment and develop its business, but not improve the welfare of the workers. Their workspace and living space are compressed to such facilities; the workers have to work round-the-clock and with a high-speed working style. This is also where readers from developed countries get a taste of the oppressive leadership in a working environment.

In Chapters Three and Four, the author describes how Apple’s iPhone is most probably the result of the blood and tears of the Foxconn workers who assembled your new gadget day and night. After the suicide incidents at Foxconn’s facilities, Apple started to reduce its dependence on Foxconn to minimize risks of adverse publicity. Foxconn also conducted an effort to maintain its image and reputation. They stated that suicide incidents in Foxconn are unrelated to the working condition; even Terry Gou invited Buddhist monks to dispel evil spirits at factory sites. They manipulated public and media perception by creating “Care and Love” campaign programs. They then set up a “Care and Love Hotline 78585” to help facilitate their mental health and build safety devices to prevent future incidents. But behind those public relations stunts, there were forced disciplines with harsh punishment.

The fifth chapter of this book tells us about Foxconn’s internship program. Every vocational school in Sichuan province cooperated with the local government by sending students to Foxconn to take mandatory internships. The authors describe how these students become new blood tricked and treated like robots. The company masters the practice of deceiving the government, something that quite commonly happens in Asian countries when it comes to covering the real truth from the public, a problem further explored in Chapter Six.

We can feel the extensive investigation in Chapter Seven when the authors can reveal the poor workforce system and environment. Most of the workers at the factory were considered as the lower social class people and suffered even for having privacy in their lives. The socio-spatial boundary between work and life was unclear. Occupational safety and health also were not noticed. The other factors of dissatisfaction are also shown in Chapter Eight, which exposes the superiority of men in the country and how it affects the work culture. The unfair gender discrimination, sexual harassment, insecurity, and unresolved tensions in the workplace and how community engagement helps Foxconn workers to cope with their stress are explained in deep detail.

In Chapter Nine, the authors explore how the public confronts big tech companies that harm the environment or even its workers’ health and safety. Workers and activists pressure companies to reduce hazards to worker health and the environment during the manufacture and disposal of products. Apple handled this crisis communication management by delivering media inquiry and corporate social responsibilities programs. Replacing consumers’ perfectly usable devices with brand new models each year inadvertently produces mountains of tech trash that is harmful to the environment. Apart from the blatant environmental degradation, this chapter also proposes another layer of how big tech companies may have irreversibly damaged our work and labor environment. Workers’ wellbeing is one of the significant factors that influence employees’ satisfaction, especially related to occupational safety and health.

The positive brand image of a company also can be supported by good conflict management. In Chapters Ten and Eleven, the authors show How Foxconn’s lousy treatment of employees finally caused strikes and protests. The hidden anger and discontentment finally showed up by the employees. The harmonious industrial relation cannot be seen in Foxconn. Although the conflict between employees and employers cannot be avoided, coping with contravention should be considered wisely. The neutral arbitration committees and standardized regulation should be provided. Participation of the local government, as the third party, play a significant role. A transparent and proper two-way communication between employees and employers should be created.

Finally, Chapter Twelve shows the apparent exposure of the human resources management system that a country with high labor migration must have. The sustainability of the human management system in a fast-growing industry is dependent on the willingness of the government, employees, and employers to build a fair and good system. If all parties consider human capital aspects such as recruitment and selection process, workers’ prosperity, and performance management, the positive impact will be perceived. Companies should change their focus, not merely on the number of products but also on the psychological aspects of the employees. When the employers can take care and respect the workers, employee engagement will increase, and as a result, the productivity and company’s brand image will also increase. In contrast, the dissatisfied employees, unfair discrimination, and disharmonious relationship among employees and employers, which are not solved, look like a time bomb that is ready to explode. This book is relevant and timeless and also will be an excellent journey for academics, students, and practitioners to dive deeper into the world of industrial psychology and crisis communication management of a company.