China: `We feel like we are serving prison sentences', say factory workers for Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft and IBM

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Workers sit on hard wooden stools without backrests 12 hours a day racing to complete 500 keyboards an hour. Each worker will complete 35,750 operations a day.

[For more discussion on China's recent economic and political developments, click HERE.]

By Charles Kernaghan

[This is an excerpt from the introduction and executive summary of a report released by the National Labor Committee in February 2009, High Tech Misery in China: The Dehumanization of Young Workers Producing Our Computer Keyboards. Click here to download the full report in PDF format.]

“I think it’s fair to say that personal computers have become the most empowering tools we’ve ever created. They’re tools of communication, they’re tools of creativity, and they can be shaped by their user...The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” -- Bill Gates

``We feel like we are serving prison sentences.” -- factory worker making Microsoft keyboards

The new assembly line: Making computer keyboards and other peripherals for Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft and IBM

The workers sit on wooden stools, without backrests, as 500 computer keyboards an hour move down the assembly line, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with just two days off a month.

Every 7.2 seconds a keyboard passes each worker, who has to snap six or seven keys into place—one key every 1.1 seconds.

The assembly line never stops. The workplace is frantic, monotonous, numbing and relentless. Each worker inserts 3250 keys an hour; 35,750 keys during the official 11-hour shift; 250,250 a week, performing over one million operations a month.

Workers are paid 1/50th of a cent for each operation they complete.

Of the 2000 or so workers at the Meitai factory, the majority are young women, ranging in age from 18 to their mid-twenties.

While working, the women cannot talk, listen to music, or even lift their heads to look around. Workers are ordered to “periodically trim their nails” -- to facilitate work, or be fined. Workers needing to use the bathroom must learn to hold it until there is a break. Security guards spy on the workers, who are prohibited from putting their hands in their pockets and are searched when they enter and leave the factory.

The factory operates 24 hours a day on two 12-hour shifts, with the workers rotating between day and night shifts each month. The workers are at the factory for up to 87 hours a week, and all overtime is strictly mandatory. There are just two half-hour meal breaks per shift, but after racing to the cafeteria and queueing up to get food, the workers have only about 15 minutes to eat.

The base wage is 64 [US] cents an hour, which after deductions for primitive room and board drops down to a take-home wage of just 41 cents an hour.

There is also mandatory unpaid overtime to clean the factory and dorms. At the end of a shift, workers must stand at attention as the foreman reviews the day’s work and what improvements must be made.

The workers get up around 6.00 am When they return to their dorm, sometime between 9.00 and 9.30 pm -- they bathe using a small plastic bucket. Summer temperatures routinely reach into the high 90sF. During the winter, workers have to walk down several flights of stairs to fetch hot water in their buckets. Ten to twelve workers share each overcrowded dorm room, sleeping on narrow metal bunk beds that line the walls. Workers drape old sheets over their cubicle openings for privacy.

If a worker steps on the grass on the way to the dorm, she is fined. The workers are locked in the factory compound four days a week and are prohibited from even taking a walk.

Management tries to brainwash the young workers, telling them they “… must love the company like their home...” and that “to serve society, each worker must be devoted to their duty … continuously striving for perfection…” and “developing good personal work habits”. These good workers also have to spy on each other for “… employees should actively monitor each other”. Communism in China has come a long way as the young workers at the Meitai factory are taught that “economising on capital … is the most basic requirement of factory enterprise”.

Workers who hand out flyers or discuss factory conditions with outsiders will be fired. Many young workers have never heard the word ``union'' and have no idea what one is.

All the workers know is that they all “feel like we are serving prison sentences”.

God help us if the labour-management relations being developed in China becomes the new low standard to be accepted by the rest of the world. The $200 personal computer and the $22.99 keyboard may be seen as a great bargain, but in the long run they come at a terrible cost.

A good question is: Would you want your daughter to work in this factory? Corporations attempt to dumb down every job so they can slash wages and benefits. If workers oppose this and try to fight back, the work is outsourced. The result is a race to the bottom, where workers are pitted against one another to compete over who will accept the lowest wages, the least benefits and most miserable working and living conditions. There are no winners in this battle.

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5500 computer keyboards will move down the assembly line each day.

High-tech misery in China: Meitai Plastics & Electronics, Dongguan City, Guangdong, China

  • Two thousand workers, mostly young women, produce computer equipment including keyboards and printer cases for Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft and IBM.
  • Management instructs the workers to “love the company like your home”, “continuously strive for perfection” and to spy on and “actively monitor each other”.
  • Workers are prohibited from talking, listening to music, raising their heads, putting their hands in their pockets. Workers are fined for being one-minute late, for not trimming their fingernails and for stepping on the grass. Workers are searched on the way in and out of the factory. Workers who hand out flyers or discuss factory conditions with outsiders are fired.
  • The young workers sit on hard wooden stools twelve hours a day, seven days a week as 500 computer keyboards an hour move down the assembly line, or one every 7.2 seconds. Workers are allowed just 1.1 seconds to snap each key into place, repeating the same operation 3250 times an hour, 35,750 times a day, 250,250 times a week and over one million times a month.
  • The workers are paid 1/50th of a cent for each operation.
  • The assembly line never stops, and workers needing to use the bathroom must learn to hold it until there is a break.
  • All overtime is mandatory, with 12-hour shifts seven days a week and an average of two days off a month. A worker daring to take a Sunday off -- which is supposedly their weekly holiday -- will be docked 2.5 days’ wages. Including unpaid overtime, workers are at the factory up to 87 hours a week. On average, they are at the factory 81 hours a week, while toiling 74 hours, including 34 hours of overtime, which exceeds China’s legal limit by 318 per cent!
  • The workers are paid a base wage of 64 cents an hour, which does not even come close to meeting subsistence level needs. After deductions for primitive room and board, the workers’ take-home wage drops to just 41 cents an hour. A worker toiling 75 hours a week will earn a take-home wage of $57.19, or 76 cents an hour including overtime and bonuses. The workers are routinely cheated of 14 to 19 per cent of the wages legally due them.
  • Ten to twelve workers share each crowded dorm room, sleeping on narrow metal bunk beds that line the walls. They drape old sheets over their cubicle openings for privacy. In the winter, workers have to walk down several flights of stairs to fetch hot water in a small plastic bucket, which they carry back to their rooms to take a sponge bath. In the summer, dorm temperatures reach into the high 90s.
  • Workers are locked in the factory compound four days a week and are prohibited from even taking a walk.
  • To symbolise their “improving lives” the workers are served a special treat on Fridays -- a small chicken leg and foot. For breakfast, they are given watery rice gruel. The workers say the food has a bad taste and is “hard to swallow”.
  • Illegally, workers are not inscribed in the mandatory work injury and health insurance and social security maternity leave program. In the molding department, due to the excessive heat, the workers suffer skin rashes on their faces and arms.
  • One worker summed up the general feeling in the factory: “I feel like I am serving a prison sentence.”

“I feel like I’m serving a prison sentence...”

“The factory is forever pressing down on our heads and will not tolerate even the tiniest mistake. When working, we work continuously. When we eat, we have to eat with lightning speed. When I need to go to the bathroom, I have to try my hardest to control myself, to hold it in and not go. The security guards are like policemen watching over prisoners. We’re really livestock and shouldn’t be called workers.

“Even when you get off your shift, there is no freedom. Even such simple pleasures as taking a walk or strolling down the street are closely managed by the factory.”

Meitai worker #1

``My hands are moving constantly…”

“Every day I enter the factory and I assemble keyboards. My hands are moving constantly and I can’t stop for a second. Our fingers, hands and arms are swollen and sore. Every day I do this for 12 hours. What makes it even worse is the constant pressure and boring monotony of the work.”

Meitai worker #2

“We are not human…”

“Working like this every day I don’t see how we are any different from machines. Management treats us so harshly; it is like we are not human. They don’t see us as people. They treat us like tools. The factory has to pay money to purchase the machines, but they don’t have to spend money on us.”

Meitai worker #3

“We have to beg the boss for mercy…”

“The factory rules are really like a private law. We are forced to obey and endure management’s harsh treatment. Some young workers have boyfriends and girlfriends outside the factory and if they want to go on a date, we have to beg the boss for mercy to be able to leave the factory compound.”

Meitai worker #4

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 04/19/2010 - 16:05


The image Microsoft doesn't want you to see: Too tired to stay awake, the Chinese workers earning just 34p an hour

By Liz Hull and Lee Sorrell
Last updated at 12:29 AM on 18th April 2010

Showing Chinese sweatshop workers slumped over their desks with exhaustion, it is an image that Microsoft won't want the world to see.

Employed for gruelling 15-hour shifts, in appalling conditions and 86f heat, many fall asleep on their stations during their meagre ten-minute breaks.

For as little as 34p an hour, the men and women work six or seven days a week, making computer mice and web cams for the American multinational computer company.

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Worn out: Some of the workers making computer accessories for Microsoft at a Chinese factory

This photo and others like it were smuggled out of the KYE Systems factory at Dongguan, China, as part of a three-year investigation by the National Labour Committee, a human rights organisation which campaigns for workers across the globe.

The mostly female workers, aged 18 to 25, work from 7.45am to 10.55pm, sometimes with 1,000 workers crammed into one 105ft by 105ft room.

They are not allowed to talk or listen to music, are forced to eat substandard meals from the factory cafeterias, have no bathroom breaks during their shifts and must clean the toilets as discipline, according to the NLC.

The workers also sleep on site, in factory dormitories, with 14 workers to a room. They must buy their own mattresses and bedding, or else sleep on 28in-wide plywood boards. They 'shower' with a sponge and a bucket.

And many of the workers, because they are young women, are regularly sexually harassed, the NLC claimed.

The organisation said that one worker was even fined for losing his finger while operating a hole punch press.

Microsoft is not the only company to outsource manufacturing to KYE, but it accounts for about 30 per cent of the factory's work, the NLC said. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Foxconn, Acer, Logitech and Asus also use KYE Systems.

Microsoft, which exports much of the hardware made at the factory to America, Europe and Japan, said that it is taking the claims seriously and has begun an investigation.

One employee told the NLC: 'We are like prisoners. It seems like we live only to work - we do not work to live. We do not live a life, only work.'

The NLC's report included an account from one worker whose job consisted entirely of sticking selfadhesive rubber feet to the bottom of Microsoft computer mice.

But the monotony of sitting or standing for 12 hours, applying foot after foot to mouse after mouse, was not the worst of the worker's testimony.

It was the militaristic management and sleep deprivation that affected the worker most. 'I know I can choose not to work overtime, but if I don't work overtime then I am stuck with only 770 Chinese yuan (£72.77p) per month in basic wages,' the worker said.

'This is not nearly enough to support a family. My parents are farmers without jobs. They also do not have pensions.

'I also need to worry about getting married, which requires a lot of money. Therefore, I still push myself to continue working in spite of my exhaustion.

'When I finish my four hours of overtime, I'm extremely tired. At that time, even if someone offered me an extravagant dinner, I'd probably refuse. I just want to sleep.'

Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the NLC, said: 'It sounded like torture - the frantic pace on the assembly line, same motion over and over for the 12 hours or more of work they did.'

Microsoft said it was committed to the 'fair treatment and safety of workers'. A spokesman added: 'We are aware of the NLC report and we have commenced an investigation.

'We take these claims seriously and we will take appropriate remedial measures in regard to any findings of misconduct.'