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OM in the News: The City That iPhone Built

July 11, 2017

Foxconn iPhone workers walk between Zhengzhou Foxconn factories

It was 2010 and the iPhone was coming to a new industrial town on the edge of Zhengzhou, China that would be known as iPhone City. One year later, Foxconn, the manufacturer, said the iPhone factory complex had 100,000 workers. Today, it employs 250,000 at the plant. The company makes 150 million iPhones each year, along with 20 million iPads.

“With Apple embracing outsourced manufacturing in Chinese cities, the iPhone’s success in the decade since it launched has fueled China’s rise at the center of the global electronics supply chain,” writes The Wall Street Journal (July 5, 2017). The explosion of higher-tech manufacturing was encouraged by Beijing as leaders sought to move factories up the value chain from making plastic toys and clothes. That shift transformed the lives of millions of Chinese, bringing jobs but also leading to complaints from workers of repetitive labor, restrictive work rules and poor living conditions.

The move to Zhengzhou followed a spate of suicides in 2010 at Foxconn’s other iPhone factory in Shenzhen, along the coast where wages were higher. “We hold our suppliers to the standard we hold ourselves: They must treat everyone with dignity and respect,” said Apple. Apple said wages and working conditions at its suppliers have improved significantly in the past 5 years.

Like American company towns a century ago—Pullman, Ill., Hershey, Pa., and Henry Ford’s Detroit—iPhone City revolves mainly around a single product, and it depends on that product for its wealth. During last fall’s rush to make the iPhone 7, when Foxconn was short-handed, state-owned coal companies lent workers to Foxconn. In past years, the province issued quotas to local authorities stating how many workers they needed to produce for Foxconn.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why doesn’t Apple manufacture iPhones in the U.S.?
  2. What has China’s government done to assist manufacturers such as Foxconn?
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