Why have suicides spiked at Apple iPad supplier Foxconn in China?

A ninth employee killed himself Tuesday at the Chinese electronics supplier Foxconn, which makes the Apple iPad and Sony Ericsson phones, turning attention to working conditions at the firm's huge complex.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Employees of electronics manufacturer Foxconn, which makes the Apple iPad, speak to reporters outside one of the tech firm's factories in the southern city of Shenzhen Tuesday. An employee Tuesday morning, threw himself to his death from the roof of a building.
Kin Cheung/AP
A dozen labor activists burned cardboard cutouts resembling iPhones near the Foxconn office in Hong Kong Tuesday.

A spate of suicides among Chinese workers making the Apple iPad, Sony Ericsson phones, and other electronic items has drawn fresh attention to working conditions in the factories supplying consumers worldwide with must-have gadgets.

At 6.20 on Tuesday morning, 19-year-old migrant worker Li Hai threw himself to his death from the roof of a building at electronics manufacturer Foxconn in the southern boom town of Shenzhen. He was the ninth company employee to kill himself this year. Two other would-be suicides have survived their injuries.

Foxconn’s massive complex, employing more than 400,000 people, has a reputation for strict discipline, says Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for the Hong Kong based “China Labour Bulletin,” which monitors working conditions in China. “It’s a tough place to be and you have to be tough to survive.”

Terry Gou, founder of Foxconn’s Taiwanese parent company Hon Hai Precision Industry, insisted Monday that his firm does not run “a blood and sweat factory.”

Pays social security, offers cheap housing

By Chinese standards, Foxconn is not a bad employer. The company pays social security contributions for its employees, offers cheap housing and food, and pays overtime at the legal rate. It has no difficulty attracting young migrant workers from the countryside.

Company officials, professing bafflement at the recent suicides, recently took reporters on a tour of the newly built dormitories and swimming pools that Foxconn offers its workers.

But a report in the respected “Southern Weekly” newspaper in Guangzhou, China, earlier this month, written by an intern who spent a month working undercover at Foxconn, painted a grim picture of alienation.

Workers are required to stand at fast-moving assembly lines for eight hours without a break and without talking, the journalist reported. Workers, sharing sleeping accommodations with nine other workmates, often do not know each others’ names.

They do not have much time to get to know each other. The basic starting pay of 900 RMB ($130) a month – barely enough to live on – can be augmented to a more respectable 2,000 RMB ($295) only by working 30 hours overtime a week.

“Today’s migrant workers have higher expectations than their parents, but reality has not changed,” says Liu Kaiming, a workers’ rights advocate with the Institute for Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen. “They cannot bridge the gap between their dreams and reality.”

The string of suicides this year at Foxconn “is not all that shocking in terms of numbers,” since it is “not grossly abnormal” compared with the national suicide rate, according to Michael Phillips, head of the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center and the leading foreign authority on suicide in China. He puts the national suicide rate at about 15 per 100,000, based on incomplete data. By comparison, the US rate is 11 per 100,000.

Apple connection

The episode has drawn widespread attention in the local press, however, because of Foxconn’s work for Apple, says Mr. Crothall. The company’s Taiwanese origins may also be a factor, he suggests, pointing to the way that the state-run news agency Xinhua and official Communist party organ the People’s Daily have been out front in the reporting of the suicides.

The company has taken a number of steps to try to halt the suicides, ranging from setting up a helpline and offering rewards to employees who point out their colleagues’ unusual behavior to hiring counselors and bringing in Buddhist priests to exorcise the factory and pacify the spirits of those who died.

Dr. Phillips, however, worries that a copy-cat effect has set in, with each suicide prompting another, which will be hard to break.

In the longer term, argues Mr. Liu, companies such as Foxconn “must be encouraged to make their factories places with social networks, with sentiment, where people feel they can fit in.”

Crothall believes the solution might be simpler. “If you raised basic wages to a decent level workers would not feel the need to do excessive overtime,” he suggests. “Then they would have more time to socialize, to be with their friend and just generally to have a life, which at the moment they don’t have.”

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