Apple factory's Wall-E robots and suicide nets revealed

Apple's factories where iPads and iPhones are born have opened their doors to cameras for the first time.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

Apple's factories where iPads and iPhones are born have opened their doors to cameras for the first time. US news show Nightline has had a revealing glimpse behind the scenes, meeting the Chinese workers who feed our gadget lust -- many of whom have never actually seen the finished products they produce.

Nightline host Bill Weir visited several production lines in the controversial Foxconn plant, discovering both the high-tech highlights -- robot machines manoeuvring "like a scene out of Wall-E" -- and sobering reminders of Foxconn's troubled history, including suicide nets around the building.

A recent spate of 18 suicides in the last few years focused attention on the manufacturing processes that produce the gadgets we love. A workforce of rural Chinese teenagers lives in dorms, carrying out mindlessly repetitive tasks, fighting the boredom and alienation that drives some to suicide, and all to feed our gadget lust.

Foxconn responded to the spate of suicides and the subsequent negative attention by setting up a counselling centre at the production facility, and showing reporters and independent inspectors around the production lines.

The report brings home the sheer scale of Foxconn, second only to the government in terms of the number of people it employs.

Foxconn is just one of Apple's suppliers, and Apple is just one of Foxconn's clients. Gizmos including the Xbox, PlayStation 3 and Amazon Kindle are all built at Foxconn City, which employs nearly a quarter of a million people. The starting wage is around £1.10 per hour -- so low the government doesn't deduct tax -- yet still thousands of migrant workers turn up at the factory gates to vie for a job.

Foxconn City is located in Shenzhen, a Chinese fishing village transformed into a manufacturing metropolis thanks to its proximity to Hong Kong, gateway to the West. It's home to more people than New York -- and to a theme park made out of a Soviet aircraft carrier.

I wonder if Bill Weir and his crew had to pretend they weren't journalists when they filled in their visa forms, like I had to when visiting Shenzhen three or four years ago. I'm guessing not.

It's certainly a revealing insight into the place where our gadgets come from. The Foxconn factory is revealed not to be the hellish sweatshop I imagined when news of suicides and poor worker conditions began to emerge, but I'm still disquieted by the dispiriting conditions faced by the people who put our favourite tech toys in our hands.

Reporters joined independent inspectors from the Fair Labor Association, currently auditing working conditions in the factory used by Apple, Sony, Dell, Motorola and many more. First impressions suggested facilities were "first-class", but closer inspections have now revealed "tons of issues".

The FLA publishes the full results of its investigations in March. We'll continue to follow this story as it unfolds.

Are you curious where your smart phone or games console comes from, or do you prefer not to know? Would you give up a gadget if you knew it was built in questionable conditions, or is this kind of inequality an unavoidable consequence of our tech-obsessed capitalist culture? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Image: Karson Yiu / ABC News