By James Pomfret
LONGHUA, China (Reuters) - Apple's top manufacturer in China, Foxconn Technology, is having no problems luring fresh workers to churn out ever more gadgets, despite the firm's reputation as a tough employer that has put it under a thorough probe into its labor practices.
On a smoggy day in a gritty industrial suburb of Shenzhen, thousands of job seekers, many migrant workers from the countryside, massed outside the north gate of Foxconn's gargantuan factory at Longhua, taking part in an epic recruitment drive to supply factory hands to meet relentless production quotas for iPhones and iPads globally.
As police sealed off roads in the area, recruiters lined up the young men in ranks, peppering them with questions before shepherding small groups into a building to register and undergo physical and psychometric tests.
"As you can see, everyone wants a job here," said Wang Jintao, a 19-year-old from central Hubei province. "I've been coming here every day for two weeks now. Perhaps today will be my lucky day."
The thousands of migrants now flocking daily to Foxconn's recruitment center at Longhua is a sharp contrast to other smaller factories in southern China that have competed viciously to find workers since the Lunar New Year holidays in late January.
Despite the publicity generated by a spate of worker suicides in 2009 that exposed a strict, militaristic production line culture, Foxconn is viewed by many workers as a tough but rigorously organized and fair employer in the harsh industrial landsape of the Pearl River Delta.
"The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm," Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) told Reuters in an interview on February 15. In comments to Bloomberg a few days later, Van Heerden appeared to take a less rosy perspective on Foxconn, saying it had "tons of issues" to address.
The Washington D.C.-based FLA is currently carrying out an Apple-sanctioned extensive study of work conditions at Apple's top eight suppliers in China, including Foxconn, the world's largest manufacturer with close to 1.2 million workers in China alone.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has described the probe as an "unprecedented" audit to mitigate longstanding criticism of the maltreatment of workers at some suppliers.
Working conditions at Foxconn, whose flagship unit is Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industries group, have in particular been a constant thorn in the company's side.
"NO TIME TO BREATHE"
Hu Baoqiang, a young migrant worker who assembled iPhone 4s at Foxconn's sister industrial plant at nearby Guanlan, said the line pressure was suffocating in his small task of placing metal covers over chips at a rate of some 1,000 phones an hour.
"It wasn't a very difficult job but you had to keep doing it without rest. It felt like there wasn't even time to breathe," he said outside the Foxconn gates, as other workers crowded around, nodding in agreement. "The supervisors are always watching you. The pressure was very great."
Even so, Hu was looking for work at Foxconn in Longhua.
While Foxconn has put a positive spin on news it was raising wages of its Chinese workers by 16-25 percent from this month, many workers at the Longhua plant said management had simultaneously imposed fees for once-free dormitory rooms and food, eroding their take-home pay. China has set a target for at least 13 percent growth in wages until 2015, as gnawing inflation for consumer goods and food further corrodes blue collar savings.
"The pay rise is useless," said another worker surnamed Xiang. "We just pay more for other things."
In a February 17 statement announcing the wage increase, Foxconn said: "As a top manufacturing company in China, the basic salary of junior workers in all of Foxconn's China factories is already far higher than the minimum wage set by all local governments."
Analysts such as Feng Yu of Sinolink say the impact of the wage rise on Foxconn's profits was unlikely to be significant, with wages only representing around 10 percent of the production costs of high value-added technology manufacturers. Foxconn's moves inland to tap lower labor costs had helped.
The average monthly wage of China's 158 million migrant workers in 2011 surged 21.2 percent from 2010 to 2,049 yuan, with wages higher in the more developed coastal areas like Guangdong.
At Longhua, an electronic board outside Foxconn's recruitment center advertised the basic wage of an ordinary worker in Shenzhen at 1,800 yuan ($290) per month. Recruiters briefing candidates on the streets, however, said factories in northern China like Taiyuan would only make 1,550 yuan a month.
Compal, a contract PC maker for clients like Dell, Acer, Toshiba and Hewlett Packard, said it adjusted salaries each year and the current base salary at its facilities in Kunshan, near Shanghai, was 1,200 to 1,300 yuan. Wintek, which supplies touch panels to Apple, Nokia and HTC, also said it paid above the minimum wage of the provinces in which it operates.
Despite the criticism Foxconn has faced, for many it is still a dream factory job, more stable and with wages, career prospects and living conditions superior to many smaller plants, which have struggled with rising costs and dwindling orders from Western consumers amid continued global economic uncertainty, particularly in Europe.
"The suicides were bad," said Liu Fanghua, a 23-year-old job hopeful from Wuhan. "There's pressure but it's just a state of mind. And if things get bad we can always just quit."
(Additional reporting by Huang Yuntao in Hong Kong, Terril Yue Jones in Beijing and Clare Jim in Taipei; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Alex Richardson)