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Apple, Foxconn offer world a glimpse into Chinese manufacturing plants

inside foxconn factory abc.jpg

Feb. 20, 2012: A "Nightline" video offered the world its first glimpse into Apple supplier Foxconn's massive Chinese factories, where worker conditions have drawn the world's attention and scorn. (ABC)

Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn has opened the doors to its massive factory, where China’s largest exporter employs thousands of workers at $1.78 an hour to piece together Apple iPads and iPhones -- mind-numbing work that may have led to 18 suicides.

Foxconn makes electronics for Sony, Dell, HP, IBM, Toshiba and others, in addition to Apple gear. And despite the rash of recent deaths, the suicide rate at the massive company is well below China's national average. 

But public attention has focused on Foxconn and Apple -- especially as the Mac maker’s stock has soared to record highs and turned the consumer electronics giant into the world’s most valuable company.

I expect them to put on a show for us.

- Fair Labor Association president Aurent van Heerden

To counter growing worldwide concern, Apple offered ABC’s Nightline a glimpse inside the factory, a tour of half a dozen production lines in Shenzhen and Chengdu. The video will air at 11:35 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21.

“We mostly found people who face their days through soul-crushing boredom and deep fatigue,” wrote Nightline host Bill Weir in a story previewing the show. Following the suicides, Foxconn hung nets on factories and dormitories -- Weir said they are “everywhere you look.”

Weir said he showed Foxconn assembly line worker Zhou Xiao Ying a collection of photos on his iPad. Her eyes lit up, Weir said; she had never seen a functioning iPad before.

The Fair Labor Association announced on Feb. 13 that it was launching an independent investigation into Foxconn, after Apple joined the trade group last month. FLA president Aurent van Heerden drew heat from critics last week after saying the factory floor seemed “tranquil,” and blaming the many suicides at least partly on boredom.

He also said the factory was among the better ones in China. Foxconn almost certainly put a fresh coat of polish on the factory, Van Heerden told Weir. 

"I expect them to put on a show for us," van Heerden said. He believes the group would be able to get a sense of reality anyway; any whitewash would be painfully obvious, he said.

ABC News is owned by the Disney Corp., and the Steve Jobs Trust is Disney's largest shareholder.