It's unclear if the brawl that broke out at a Foxconn plant yesterday had anything to do with the iPhone 5, even though that's the conclusion some labor groups are making. It's not a totally unfair assumption—the launch of new iPhone models has lead to workers putting in longer hours and similar clashes before. But there has been no reporting yet on whether the new iPhone is being assembled at the Taiyuan location. Foxconn declined to comment on the Apple question and the reports out today give compelling evidence for both possibilities, as you can see below. 

No iPhone 5

  • Foxconn gave a vague idea of what goes on there, saying the factory makes components for automobiles and consumer electronics, which in addition to Apple's gear, could mean Dell computers, HP printers, or Microsoft's XBox, to name a few.
  • "Supply-chain experts" told Barboza and Bradsher Apple's products get made in other parts of China.
  • When asked by The New York Times' David Barboza and Keith Bradsher, Apple sent all questions to Foxconn, meaning it's not their problem? 

iPhone 5

  • Foxconn gave a vague idea of what goes on there, saying the factory makes components for automobiles and consumer electronics, which could include the iPhones.
  • The Wall Street Journal's Paul Moriz and Tom Orlik spoke to employees who said the factory produces some parts used in iPhones.
  • An undercover report, surfaced by Engadget, said the same plant made the back casing for the iPhone 5. 
  • Labor rights group China Labor Watch said the Taiyuan facility is making the iPhone 5, reports The Associated Press

Even if some iPhone-making happens at this plant, placing all the blame on Apple seems to oversimplify the situation. The official word from Foxconn is that the incident appeared "not to have been work-related," which sounds quite unlikely, since work is mostly what happens at a Foxconn campus. As both WSJ and The Times explain it, this unrest probably has more to do with structural worker changes in China than one popular gadget. It's more likely that workers began bruning motorcycles and smashing shop windows because of the bigger trends:

  • Labor awareness. More than ever, possibly because of all the press about China's labor issues over the last year, workers understand that they deserve better, especially the young ones. "Younger workers are definitely more aware of their rights and more demanding," Geoff Crothall, a China Labour Bulletin spokesman told Moriz and Orlik. "They want more out of life than simply earning minimum wage."
  • The economy. As unhappy laborers demand more money, the Chinese economy has slowed down, making it harder for these companies to meet their demands. Foxconn's profits, in particular, haven't been that great. The manufacturer's profit in the first half of the year grew a wan 0.5 percent, report Moriz and Orlik. 
  • A lack of other outlets. Workers at Foxconn do not have collective bargaining rights, and the state media controls does not allow for much dissent in the press or online. So when workers have complaints, protests are one the few ways they can express them.
  • Tedium. The longer people toil at these jobs, the more dissatisfied they will become with the conditions. "It's like the Industrial Revolution," Sanford Bernstein analyst Alberto Moel told Moriz and Orlik. "People are unhappy about a combination of low wages and the fact that they're doing a menial job, and you'll be seeing that for a long time."

With a public holiday coming up next week, Barboza and Bradsher expect tempers to cool at the plant. But, considering the longterm trends feeding the protests, it sounds like we can look forward to more unrest at these and other Chinese factories.