In the Chinese city of Hengyang, we find a fatigued, disposable workforce assembling gadgets for Amazon, owned by the world’s richest man.
Five o’clock in the morning and the young woman’s eyelids are drooping. All night she has been removing spots of dust from Amazon smartspeakers with a toothbrush. Time seems to crawl. Now she is overwhelmed with exhaustion.
She works on, more and more slowly, until she can do no more. She looks around the workshop. Other workers have rested their heads on the bench. She slumps forward and falls asleep.
Let’s call the young woman Alexa. Alexa, what are you doing here?
For an answer, we must fast forward a couple of months to last Monday. It is an overcast morning in the city of Hengyang, in the southern Chinese province of Hunan. More than seven million people live in this city, the second-largest in the province. It is known locally as the Wild Goose City, for the birds that used to stop off on their southerly migration, but many people even within China would struggle to find it on a map.
The morning is warm but overcast, with a light haze that could be fog or pollution. The road to the Foxconn factory in Baishazhou Industrial Park is wide and lined with well-cared-for plants. There’s a steady stream of cars, motorbikes and buses heading towards the factory, which sits back from the road behind a large gate. Blue-uniformed security staff keep watch on those coming in and the street outside.
Dozens of workers are arriving, casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Most are young and there is a good mixture of women and men. Ahead of them lies a 60-hour week, eight regular hours for five days, plus two more of overtime each day and another 10 on Saturday. They will be expected to hit tough targets and must ask permission to use the toilets. The overtime – up to 80 hours a month – is far in excess of the 36 hours stipulated in Chinese labour laws, but companies can and do seek exemptions and workers want the overtime, to boost their basic pay.
These are the people who are making the smart speakers and tablets that Amazon hopes to make a fixture in millions more homes around the world this year: the Echo and Echo Dot – which both spring to life when the user addresses them as Alexa – and the Kindles.
It is a year since Amazon sealed a deal with the giant Foxconn company to ramp up its hardware production in Hengyang, with the Chinese firm reportedly adding 30 new production lines and creating 15,000 jobs.