Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturing giant where the world’s iPhones are assembled, has a reputation for poor working conditions. Now a trove of translated poetry from a factory worker who committed suicide shines new light into the devastating emotional and physical toll of that job.
Xu Lizhi first began working in the assembly line at Foxconn’s Shenzen facility in 2010. During his employment, he published nearly 30 pieces in the company’s internal newspaper, “Foxconn People,” including poems describing the plant’s poor working conditions.
Lizhi killed himself in September 2014 at the age of 24. In late October, the Nào Project — a multilingual blog and journal dedicated to human rights — translated his obituary and poems to “spread awareness [of] the harsh conditions, struggles and aspirations of Chinese migrant workers.”
A screenshot of Lizhi’s obituary, which ran in his hometown paper, the Shenzhen Evening News.
The titles of Lizhi’s work include “I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That” and “The Last Graveyard.” They depict a joyless, almost robotic existence full of overnight shifts, docile suffering, and a toxic working environment.
One of Lizhi’s shorter works from January 2014, “A Screw Fell to the Ground,” hints at the company’s lack of concern for exhausted employees.
A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
On a night like this
When someone plunged to the ground
News of Foxconn’s inhumane conditions spread to international circles as early as 2010, the year that 18 Foxconn workers separately attempted suicide by leaping off a structure at the manufacturing facility. Fourteen died. The pattern sparked inquiries from some of Foxconn’s customers, including Apple and Hewlett-Packard.
By 2012, The New York Times reported that Foxconn had improved its conditions, after company executives sat down with Apple officials and negotiated changes. Employees were given chairs to sit on (which previously were considered incentives for laziness), as well as more substantial improvements such as shorter shifts and higher pay.
But the fact that these disturbing poems appeared in an internal factory newspaper — and that not one Foxconn supervisor, administrator, or executive expressed concern for Lizhi or his co-workers — is a telling sign that the company is far from resolving the problems that have plagued it in the past.