China's dorm room discontent emerges as new labor flashpoint

TAIYUAN, China (Reuters) - Twenty-three-year old factory worker Wang spends up to 12 hours a day making iPhone components in China, but his major complaint is not about the monotony of the production line - it is about his degrading worker-bee life inside the dormitory.

Locals walk in an alley near a Foxconn Tech-Industry Park in Taiyuan, Shanxi province September 25, 2012. REUTERS/Michael Martina

Wang, who did not want his full name published, is among thousands of workers housed in a vast complex where tensions aggravated by regimented and cramped living conditions boiled over on Sunday into a violent mass riot.

“The bathrooms are simply disgusting and people are constantly stealing things,” Wang said as he stood outside of the factory in the northern city of Taiyuan, owned by Apple Inc’s largest contract manufacturer, Taiwan firm Foxconn.

Until the riot, which turned from a personal dorm squabble into battles between police and about 2,000 workers and spilled over into Monday, the focus of labor discontent in China had been on production lines, especially those making products for Apple.

The unrest, which left about 40 people injured, metal factory gates flattened, cars overturned and windows smashed, shifted the focus on to broader living conditions, particularly for migrant workers who live in thousands of factory dormitories around the country.

It also highlights mounting pressure on Chinese manufacturers to keep pace not just with rising wages but with a younger generation’s demands for more comfortable, flexible lifestyles. The sheer size of some factories - almost 80,000 toil at the Taiyuan plant - presents huge management problems.

“The management is awful,” said Wang, adding that his dormitory’s bathroom floors were often covered in excrement.

Access to the seven-storey, grey concrete dormitories at Taiyuan is restricted to factory workers only, but many unhappy employees spoke to journalists outside the surrounding tall chain-link fences about a long list of frustrations.

Eight to 10 people shared a single room, with as many as 30 rooms on each floor, workers said, adding that men and women were segregated and closely supervised by security guards.

Some complained of rules that limited personal freedoms - a flashpoint for a digitally connected generation. There was no drinking or smoking, and one worker said management did not allow residents to hang posters on the wall.

Guards working for Foxconn have been known for bullying in efforts to stop theft. Employees at Taiyuan said the treatment was dehumanizing. One worker said he had been berated by security for having his jacket unzipped.


Foxconn, which outsources management and security of the dormitories, has said it will review how they are being run.

“We need to put things into context after this incident. The first is how to manage dormitories,” Foxconn Technology Group spokesman Louis Woo said after the riot.

Foxconn, the trading name of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, the world’s largest contract maker of electronics, said it had been trying to boost worker loyalty by increasing dormitory space and recreational facilities.

Labor advocates have also noted that in some places the firm is beginning to offer more accommodation choice by giving housing and food allowances to workers who live off-site.

However, experts say many firms are failing to meet the challenge of managing workers in China, where the pool of low-cost labor is drying up after 30 years of economic boom.

“Their (workers’) expectations have changed so drastically, and companies haven’t kept up...” said Mary Gallagher, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan who researches Chinese labor issues.

She said migrant workers were now fewer in number, more educated, came from smaller families and that companies would have to do more than boost pay to entice them into signing up.


Job hunters still queued at sunrise at the Taiyuan factory’s gates on Wednesday with job applications in hand, just two days after the riot which forced a day-long closure.

But Foxconn workers said that since the beginning of the year the lines had shortened from thousands to hundreds - and that the new recruits’ enthusiasm soon waned once they started work.

“There are fewer people that want a job like this. They can’t bear it - working all day like machines and then going home to chaotic and dirty dorms,” said a 28-year-old male employee with the surname Wei.

Lu Feifei, 23, and his wife were transferred three months ago from Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant to relieve a labor shortage in Taiyuan, but there were no dormitory rooms for couples there.

Instead, they pay 10 percent of their combined 5,000 yuan ($800) monthly salary on a dank one-room apartment a short walk from the factory, more than twice what it would cost the average worker to live in the dorm.

“For me personally, I’m not sure it will work for us long-term,” Lu said.

Dozens of workers and head-hunters said hundreds of new recruits flowed through the doors at the Foxconn plant every day but they usually only stayed for a matter of months.

“Turnover has been high in the past few days. Maybe 600 a day,” said Qing Fengbin, a recruiter handing out cards that read “achieve your dreams” at a booth near one of the plant’s gates.

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in BEIJING and Clare Jim in TAIPEI; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Nick Macfie