Did Chinese iPhone Workers Really Go on Strike?

“With the iPhone,” Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote this week, “Apple is building products at a level of quality that may be unprecedented in the history of mass manufacturing.” But Apple, of course, is not building the iPhone at all, and its demands for extreme levels of precision and consistency are reported to have slowed production and raised tensions at contract manufacturers including Foxconn. According to New York-based China Labor Watch:

[…] In addition to demanding that workers work during the holiday, Foxconn raised overly strict demands on product quality without providing worker training for the corresponding skills. This led to workers turning out products that did not meet standards and ultimately put a tremendous amount of pressure on workers. Additionally, quality control inspectors fell into to conflicts with workers and were beat up multiple times by workers. […]

CLW’s release states that these conditions led to a strike involving as many as 4,000 workers at Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant. This report was swiftly picked up by the tech and general media, but Adam Minter at Shanghai Scrap and Stan Abrams at China Hearsay both expressed reservations. At Bloomberg View on Wednesday, Minter dug deeper into the strike story’s origins and development, and found the single Weibo user who may have knocked $13 billion off Apple’s market cap.

As the story grew, journalists and bloggers who tried to confirm the event found themselves forced to rely on China Labor Watch’s word. Meanwhile, Foxconn, Apple’s primary contractor and the owner of the factory where the alleged strike occurred, denied that anything more than several isolated incidents between workers and quality control personnel had occurred and insisted that iPhone 5 production would not be delayed.

The lack of additional information is highly unusual: In contemporary China, it’s the rare brawl that isn’t recorded by somebody’s smartphone, while large-scale unrest is either accompanied or followed by a virtual data dump of accounts, photos and films. To be sure, Foxconn restricts the ability of its employees to carry phones into factories, but there’s no question that many Foxconn employees not only have smartphones (a brief perusal of Foxconn employees who tweet to Sina Weibo proves it), but also use them.

A search for the origins of China Labor Watch’s report reveals that at least one person recorded the Oct. 5 events. His real name is unknown, but on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging service, he goes by the handle Ye Fudao — a name that can be roughly translated as “The Wild Husband’s Cleaver.” […]

Read on. For more on China’s workers, see portraits by Lucas Schifres and a TED talk by Leslie Chang, via CDT.