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Foxconn doors swung open to visitor, but few surprises await

Journalist Rob Schmitz will relay his experiences at the Apple supplier throughout the week, though his first report offers much of what has already been revealed.

Foxconn employees working on Apple products.
Foxconn employees working on Apple products. Apple

Rob Schmitz, the public radio journalist who cried foul on Apple commentator Mike Daisey's statements related to Foxconn working conditions, is now reporting from the factory floor.

Schmitz, who has been a longtime correspondent for American Public Media's Marketplace, is only the second Western journalist to be granted access to Foxconn facilities, and today offered his first report on what he observed at the company's factory in Shenzhen, China. Not surprisingly, his first takeaway was comprehending the vast number of people working on Apple's iPad.

"In this factory, on the iPad assembly line, what first hits you is just the sheer amount of people," Schmitz said today in an interview on Marketplace. "You see line after line of hundreds of workers, and you get this relation that this is a real manual labor process for what is a machine that's very sleek and looks like a machine actually made it. But in fact, every single part of that is being put together by a person."

That said, Schmitz revealed that the human-heavy process might be changing. He noted spying a 20-foot-long machine that was used to assemble the iPad's motherboard. The long-term cost for a machine might be drawing Foxconn to that option, but it could also have something to do with workers feeling less inclined to stay with the company now that their overtime will be limited.

Last month, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) revealed its findings about Foxconn factories. A key issue the organization discovered was the amount of time that workers were assembling products. The FLA prefers companies to offer reasonable overtime each week, but in some cases, Foxconn employees were working much longer than expected. The new overtime limit is 36 hours per month -- something that several Foxconn employees don't seem pleased by.

"We think that 60 hours of overtime a month would be reasonable and that 36 hours would be too little," Foxconn worker Chen Yamei told Reuters last month. That followed an FLA survey that found that 48 percent of Foxconn workers thought that their dozens of hours of overtime were reasonable. Another one-third of workers said that they wanted to work even more.

Schmitz discovered much of the same from Foxconn employees, who told him that they'd likely go back to their home provinces rather than stay with Foxconn in Shenzhen. With less overtime, the cost of living is simply too high for them to make it work.

To address that, Foxconn said last month that it would adjust worker pay to address the "income lost through reduced hours." That said, those whom Schmitz interviewed don't seem to believe that will happen. And Foxconn, realizing that employees might leave, is starting to rethink where it opens its factories.

"Instead of workers migrating a thousand miles to the Chinese coast, now what we may start seeing are companies moving their factories away from the coast, where the workers actually come from," Schmitz said today. "So instead of the workers migrating, it'll be the factories. And Foxconn's already doing this -- the company's newest factories are all in inland provinces, and in some ways, this is a win-win."

Schmitz is releasing more details about his tour of the Shenzhen factory each day this week during Marketplace.