Tonight, millions of U.S. television viewers will get their first glimpse inside Apple's magic factory: the two Foxconn plants in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China, where Apple makes a variety of best-selling gadgets, including the iPad. It will also be an opportunity to assess whether Apple is treating its factory workers properly. ABC Nightline anchor Bill Weir, who spoke to Mashable about the special, said that after spending a few days on the factory floors, he now "thinks different about Apple products."
"We expected to find some real horror stories, and didn’t. That said, what is acceptable on a Chinese assembly line is soul-crushing by American standards," said Weir.
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ABC News got the invite after years of requests. That's right, Apple called Weir, offering him, essentially, an all access pass to the plant floors where Apple builds its key products. Apple's abrupt about face from secretive to open -- at least when it comes to labor -- was likely triggered by, first, intense public scrutiny, and then its own decision to invite an audit of its Chinese factories by the Fair Labor Association. So Apple reached out, not surprisingly, to ABC News. Its parent company ABC is, as Weir himself was quick to point out, owned by Disney, which has a strong relationship with Apple that includes the Steve Jobs Trust owning substantial shares in the company. Weir insisted that there were no preconditions about the Apple Foxconn report. He insisted to Apple that it not be a "Potemkin village, no dog and pony show" and told Mashable his team was free to walk the lines, talk to whomever they wanted and report whatever they saw.
Weir came away with a number of striking impressions and unforgettable images and not just from the factories. Thirty years ago, Foxconn City, which is essentially the factory complex in Shenzhen, was a sleepy little city. Now it's exploding with 11 million people. In it, they build products not only for Apple, but for competitors Sony, Toshiba, Dell and HP.
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The other striking image: the suicide nets. They are everywhere, surrounding every worker dormitory and factory. When Weir asked Foxconn workers about the nets, they said simply, "That's for workers' safety."
Those nets went up and Foxconn opened a counseling center after a rash of worker suicides in 2010. Weir said although factory workers at Foxconn do not seem much different than those found, say, in the U.S., the environment at Foxconn can be stressful, "Especially for teenagers who go to that environment, go to the big city and do not know anyone."
Part of that stress could be related to the kind of work done at the Foxconn plants. Weir said he was surprised by how much of the work is done by hand. "The lines go on forever. The conveyor belt never stops." Also, most people working on Apple's gadgets never see the finished product. He saw one woman who carves the Apple silhouette on the back of the iPad case. She's done it thousands and thousands of times, but had never seen a functioning iPad -- until Weir showed her his, "Her face lit up swiping through my photo album."
As Apple undergoes this self-imposed audit and consumers grapple with questions about the treatment of the people who build the gadgets they love, the very landscape in which Foxconn operates is changing. "It's a seismic moment [in China]," said Weir. The news anchor noted how much had changed since he first did a series in the country seven years ago. Back then it was "novel to watch TV from Hong Kong." Now they're all media savvy. "Everyone has a Justin Beiber haircut, they understand the styles and what’s happening around the world." They also see clearly beyond the walls of the factory floor and even the boundaries of Foxconn City.
There was no fear when talking to Weir and his crew. "No one hesitated to complain about food or dormitories or lack of overtime," he said. "In many cases, almost to a person, they complained about low pay." That last point is notable because Foxconn is now dealing with something it never had to before: worker retention. These factories, Weir said, know they have to maintain a level of consistency, and that they now have to treat workers well enough that they will not seek opportunities elsewhere. Foxconn recently implemented a number of significant pay raises.
It wasn't all controversy at the plants. Weir and his team did film, possibly for the first time, city-bus-sized robots moving huge sheets of iPad glass. However, Weir told me that that was the exception, not the rule. Ultimately, ABC News's Foxconn report is a very human story about a company and process in transition. Whether you believe ABC News can report fairly about Apple or not, it will still be worth watching this rare glimpse inside Apple's "iFactory."
The special edition of Nightline, “iFactory: Inside Apple,” airs Tuesday night at 11:35 p.m. ET/PT.
Watch and let us know what you think of the report in the comments.
This story originally published on Mashable here.