Foxconn Temporarily Closes iPhone Plant After Riot

Thousands of workers in northern China rioted inside a Foxconn plant to protest their treatment by security guards. The company says about 40 people went to the hospital with injuries. Foxconn has come under intense scrutiny for its working conditions.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. A riot involving at least 2,000 workers broke out late last night at a Foxconn facility in northern China, where employees make iPhones. Foxconn says about 40 people went to the hospital with injuries. Now, in recent years Foxconn has come under intense scrutiny for the working conditions in its factories. Now we have this episode, so we're bringing in NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's following the story from Shanghai.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What happened?

LANGFITT: Well, the violence apparently broke out around 11 o'clock. And the workers just went on, really clearly, a rampage. They overturned a guard post. Witnesses said they smashed and overturned cars, even attacked a shopping mall, breaking windows.

Now, Foxconn is calling this, quote, "an incident," but clearly it was a lot more than that. There were about 5,000 security forces were actually sent to kind of quell this. And it was quite serious. There's this cell phone video we can listen to in a moment in which you can hear riot police negotiating with hundreds of workers. Here it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD NOISE)

LANGFITT: Now, the company says this was just a personal dispute among employees from different provinces inside a dorm and doesn't appear to be related to the working conditions and they're still investigating. But some workers are telling a very different story. They say there's been anger brewing at the plant for quite some time.

And the way they describe it is when they get off work they have to line up 200, 300 at a time to go through these metal detectors because the factory's concerned they might steal, you know, iPhones, things like that. And they see the security guards kind of push them around and verbally abuse them. And last night there was this dispute in which guards actually - according to some workers - actually beat a couple of workers and that's what sparked the violence.

INSKEEP: Frank, just so I understand that little clip of cell phone video that you played. What are we hearing there? We're hearing the authorities talking through a bullhorn or something, at masses of demonstrators? Is that right?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it's actually - it's an amazing scene. It's actually, you can see these riot trucks and the lights are spinning. It's like two or three in the morning, and there are hundreds of workers. And they're talking on a bullhorn, basically saying give us a representative who can come and talk this out.

INSKEEP: So you have this confrontation between the authorities and workers, you have a number of people harmed, and you have this question about working conditions. You talked about security conditions being rather tough in the plant, but are there broader concerns about the way in which people go about their daily lives inside the plant?

LANGFITT: Well, that's always been a question here in China, and it's been a question for many years. You know, how do people treat the workers who build many of the products that we use. There was an undercover reporter who was there last month, had a - had something out. And he said there were people sleeping ten to a room, there were cockroaches in cabinets.

But one worker I talked to said, you know, things really aren't that bad. The plant is clean. It was air conditioned. And they were getting paid overtime. But people felt disrespected by the guards and were kind of sick of this.

And it's interesting. If you go back to the 1990s when I covered labor in China, workers were much more docile and they might even be willing to take a beating. But factory workers today, they've got higher salaries, they're more confident, better educated and, frankly, more wiling to fight back.

INSKEEP: I wonder if the fact that it's Foxconn, and people must know that it's received world attention, makes them more will to speak out. They know that the world is going to be watching whatever happens.

LANGFITT: Well, it's hard to know. I mean, these things do come up a lot. You know, Foxconn became infamous back in 2010. There were five months there when there were like a dozen suicide or suicide attempts. People were jumping from buildings. But last month, the Fair Labor Association, a watchdog group, came in. They did an audit. And they said they'd seen a lot of improvements. There's still some violations. Bottom line is, you're right, now that there's been this riot, there's going to be a lot more attention to Foxconn. And, again, there are going to be more questions about the nature of the operation.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai.

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