As 3,000 applicants rush the Foxconn gates, there is first the squeal of police whistles and then a dizzying wave of body heat as the crowd surges past.
It is a Monday after a Chinese holiday, and since many overworked migrants will just stay home, the people who lined up before dawn know that the chances of getting an assembly line job are better than average. And in a country of 1.3 billion, where jobs are scarce, getting there first matters; especially for their families back in the village, where most of their paycheck will end up.
The young men and women range from 16 (the legal working age in the province) to their early 20s, and as they finally reach the head of the line, each is asked to wave their national ID card across an electronic reader. Since Foxconn needs to hire several thousand people today, most hear a satisfying beep and are waved in. Those with bogus IDs are silently turned away.
As groups of 300 are processed with military precision, an electronic billboard outside the recruitment center tells them what they can expect: starting salary is around $285 a month or $1.78 an hour. And even with the maximum 80 hours of overtime a month, the Chinese government considers them too poor to withdraw any payroll taxes.
If they want to share a dorm with seven strangers, $17.50 will be deducted from their salary and in the massive Foxconn canteens, a heaping tray of meat, vegetables and rice goes for about $0.80. After a training period, a new hire can be on an iPhone line in as little as three days, quietly assembling a gadget that would cost him three months salary.
"I heard work is hard here," says one 17-year-old applicant with a Justin Beiber haircut. "But I heard they just raised the pay," says another. On Feb. 1, Foxconn began paying more than the minimum wage in Shenzhen by raising the starting salary about $0.25 an hour.
Over three days in two cities, "Nightline" spoke with dozens of Foxconn workers, both on and off the factory campuses, both on and off the record. We were encouraged to enter any dorm at any time to gather as much insight as any strange Americans with cameras can. All the while, I kept imagining my own reaction if a Chinese TV crew burst into my home or office and started asking me how much I like my job.
But while we looked hard for the kind of underage and maimed workers we've read so much about, but we mostly found people who face their days through soul-crushing boredom and deep fatigue. Some complained of being overworked, others complained of being underworked and almost all said they were underpaid. And when I asked "what would you change?" we heard the kind of complaints you might hear in any factory anywhere.
"Compared with other factories, it's quite good here, because the benefits are good. And because a lot of things happened in the past, it's been improved a lot," said 26-year-old Zhang Ruohua after making printer cartridges for about a year. "But the dorm conditions are not that good. The rooms are crowed and we don't have much space to hang our clothes, and the shower rooms are small. And there is not much overtime. Many people come and go because there is not much overtime."
Is this a typical complaint? Was Mike Daisey wrong or did Foxconn clean itself up since he was here? With over one million employees it is impossible to say, and the limits of this method are just one reason Chinese groups like Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) think Apple's self-imposed audits are largely useless.
Debby Chan of SACOM says Apple's long history of internal audits proves the company already knows where the problems are. She says they've just been resistant to fixing them."There must be a genuine trade union at Apple suppliers so the workers can have a voice for themselves," she says.
After reports that union organizers are often fired, arrested or beaten in China, I ask Foxconn executive Louis Woo what would happen if iPhone line workers decided to organize.
"We do have labor unions at Foxconn," he says, "But it's not a freely elected labor union yet. I expect to see that in the next year or two, they will become more like a collective bargaining union, and they will be freely elected. In fact I see that some legislations in more progressive provinces would require labor unions to be sitting on the board of companies. So I do see hope of labor unions becoming more powerful but it's not here yet."
'Please Use It With Care'
In the meantime, Zhou Xiao Ying carves another aluminum Apple into the back of another iPad casing, lets her mind wander to her two sons and whether they can ever afford to live in the same city.
I pull out my own iPad to show her a few pictures of my kid and America and her eyes light up when she touches the screen to swipe another photo into view. She's never seen a working iPad up close before.
"For all the people in America who buy one of these, what do you want them to know about you?" I ask.
"I want them to know me," she says. "I want them to know we put a lot of effort in this product so when they use this please use it with care."
Then she goes back to work.
The line is calling.
"Okay." "Okay." "Okay."
Editor's note: Foxconn, Apple and the Fair Labor Association submitted responses to ABC News after "Nightline" anchor Bill Weir's exclusive report on Apple's Chinese factories aired on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. Read their statements HERE.
Watch "Nightline" anchor Bill Weir's exclusive full report on a special edition of "Nightline," "iFactory: Inside Apple."