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The Chinese want jobs, too!

Bobby Yip / Reuters file

Workers are seen inside a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua in the southern Guangdong province, in 2010.

BEIJING—Last week, the New York Times published a report about working conditions at factories producing Apple products in China.  Under the spotlight was Foxconn Technology, a key manufacturer for Apple and “China’s largest exporter and one of the nation’s biggest employers, with 1.2 million workers,” responsible for churning out tens of millions of iPhones and iPads sold around the world.

The article focused specifically on Foxconn’s Chengdu factory, where employees have complained about nonstop shifts, arduous overtime, crowded dormitories, mental health (nearly twenty workers at Foxconn have committed suicide over two years), and a hazardous working environment that's led to at least one explosion, in May 2011.

The New York Times report was also published in Chinese in the well-respected business and economic news weekly Caixin, where Chinese readers could post comments in response to the story. 

Since it was released over the Lunar New Year festival, a week-long holiday which brings the country to a rare standstill, reaction seemed relatively muted.  As we write this, there were 650 comments on Caixin’s Weibo page (a Twitter-like Chinese microblog)--compared to the 1,770 comments on the Times’ website. 

A cynical reaction in China
On Caixin’s Weibo site, some of the comments condemned Apple’s corporate practices, but many also criticized the Chinese government for failing to protect its own citizens.

“Labor protection and social security is not only the responsibility of corporations.  If the government had regulations and supervised the corporations, then they cannot be that irresponsible,” wrote one person. 

A significant number also captured a sentiment that was cynical but perhaps very pragmatic of many Chinese: 

“If they don’t work for Apple, those workers don’t have anywhere to shed their sweat and blood.”

“Why not kick Apple out?  Tens of thousands of people will lose their jobs.“

“They are criticizing Apple only, because Apple is a huge target.  The migrant workers hired by state-owned enterprises here can hardly be as good as Apple’s.  Take care of your own workers before you pay attention to other people’s suppliers.”

All of which was bolstered by something this week that explains--in part--why the response in China might not be as outraged as those in the West might expect.

Workers want those jobs
On Monday, tens of thousands of people lined up outside a job agency to apply for an estimated 100,000 new jobs Foxconn is seeking to fill at its factory in Zhengzhou, the capital of central Henan province. 

Foxconn wants to double its current workforce of 130,000 at the Zhengzhou plant, which it opened last year.  The facility already churns out 200,000 iPhones a day and is part of Foxconn’s grand plan to make Zhengzhou the world’s largest smartphone manufacturing base.

The basic starting salary advertised--according to a report posted on M.I.C. Gadget, a blogsite about tech and other related matters in China—is 1,650 yuan a month ($261), which includes dorm housing and food.

The pay is lower than comparable salaries Foxconn pays workers at its Shenzhen factory in southern China.  But that may be a sacrifice Henan workers are willing to make initially. 

With a population in excess of 100 million, Henan is China’s most populous province.  A fifth of them are migrant workers who travel widely to find jobs in the country’s more prosperous regions like the south or coast.

With additional reporting from Bo Gu.