Sleeping on the job: Inside a factory making iPhones for Apple

December 19, 2014, 2:14 PM UTC

Whoever shot the video from inside the Pegatron iPhone 6 factory that aired Thursday night on the BBC — he or she is identified only as one of several “undercover reporters” — got some good stuff: The answers to Apple’s mandatory health-and-safety exam being chanted out loud to a roomful of job applicants. Applicants being required to volunteer to work nights and standing up. The must-carry Chinese government ID cards of new hires being confiscated — all direct violations of Apple’s supplier conduct rules.

But the money shot for me was the clip of an exhausted worker — a young woman with Crayola-colored hair — nodding off on the line.

There is a human cost to manufacturing at high speed tens of millions of electronic devices — Apple’s and everybody else’s — and it is paid overwhelmingly by factory workers in China and Southeast Asia.

Those Foxconn assembly workers who jumped out their dormitory windows should have told us all we needed to know about how bad it can be.

But it’s interesting that what caught the eye of the undercover reporters — and what the BBC’s Richard Bilton chose to focus on — was people falling asleep on the job.

“I can’t stand this anymore,” someone says, in Chinese, at the 2-minute mark in the 3-minute report. “I am too tired, too sleepy.”

It makes sense. To get the job done for Apple, Pegatron had to staff up rapidly and schedule a lot of overtime. Those 12-hour shifts — as any CIA interrogator can tell you — take their toll.

Apple in a statement to the BBC said that it was not unusual for workers to take sleep breaks. And it added, not incorrectly:

We are aware of no other company doing as much as Apple to ensure fair and safe working conditions. We work with suppliers to address shortfalls, and we see continuous and significant improvement, but we know our work is never done.”

I used think it was unfair that exposes like these — by everybody from Mike Daisey to the New York Times — picked on Apple.

But I’ve come around. It’s true that every major high-tech manufacturer exploits the same Asian workforce. But no one relies more heavily on that workforce than Apple. How could you do the story without them?

Bilton’s report has been posted on the BBC website and on YouTube.

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple (AAPL) coverage at or subscribe via his RSS feed.