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Firm shaken by suicides

Nine young workers at a Chinese plant that makes computer components have killed themselves this year.

May 26, 2010|Barbara Demick and David Sarno

BEIJING AND LOS ANGELES — Psychologists and Buddhist monks have come to console workers. There is a suicide hotline, piped-in music and a stress-release center where workers are invited to hit a punching bag with a picture of their supervisor.

But so far, nothing and nobody have been able to stop the suicides at Foxconn Technology Group, which manufactures Apple's iPhones as well as Dell and Hewlett-Packard components in Shenzhen in southern China.

The latest worker to commit suicide jumped to his death Tuesday. He was a 19-year-old identified as Li Hai, a migrant from Hunan province who had worked for the company just 42 days. He was the ninth worker at the Shenzhen facility to jump to his death this year. Another Foxconn worker committed suicide in northern China, and two others in Shenzhen survived falls.

A flotilla of social scientists, sociologists, psychologists and other experts -- many of them affiliated with Beijing's Tsinghua University, where Foxconn endowed a nanotechnology center -- were convening in Shenzhen on Wednesday for a meeting on how to stop the suicides. Terry Gou, the chief executive of Foxconn's parent company, Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision Industry, cut short a meeting in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, and was flying to Shenzhen after news of the latest death.

"This guy is stressed out. They are scared," said Peng Kaiping, a social psychologist from Tsinghua who met over the weekend with Gou. "He kept asking me, 'What can we do?' "

The deaths have triggered a debate about whether they are an epidemic of mass hysteria -- each new suicide copying the death of the last -- or a form of social protest. The deaths spotlight the pressure felt by a new generation of employees to work harder and make more money to keep up with China's dizzying pace of growth.

All of the workers who killed themselves were recent high school or vocational school graduates, ages 18 to 24. The group of men and women sometimes worked from 4 a.m. until late at night, often putting in extra shifts to earn overtime.

Foxconn, the world's largest maker of computer components, employs about 300,000 people at Shenzhen's Longhua Science & Technology Park, where most of the suicides took place. Most of the workers come from out of town and live in dormitories inside the compound.

The cluster of suicides is especially unnerving because it comes alongside a string of attacks on elementary school children that has left more than 20 people dead since mid-March. Peng said that both are "copycat cases by people with misguided ideas about social justice." He said, however, that the suicides showed that "China is reaching a critical point where it cannot develop as it once did, taking advantage of cheap labor and not paying attention to workers' rights."

Foxconn released results this month of a study saying the suicide rate at its Shenzhen facility was no higher than China's annual average of 14 cases per 100,000 people, but that the company was nevertheless concerned.

Labor experts said Foxconn's conditions are not so different from those of other Chinese factories.

"I'm not going to condemn Foxconn for appalling conditions because there are certainly worse places to work in China. The pay is basic, they do pay overtime according to the proper rates, and they pay social insurance. The work environment is clean and the food is not too bad," said Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. "But there is a peculiar dynamic. The company is obsessed with security, and I must say that, from the outside, the place looks like a prison."

Foxconn is a major supplier to Apple. In July, a 25-year-old worker who was under investigation for losing the prototype of a new iPhone killed himself. He alleged in text messages written shortly before his death that he was beaten and humiliated in the course of the investigation.

For its part, Apple says it requires its suppliers to adhere to a detailed code of conduct to protect workers' safety, including a limit of 60 work hours per week, including overtime. The company, which says it takes corrective action when it finds substandard workplace conditions, audited more than 100 of its production facilities in 2009, according to a report it released in February.

However, that report also showed that more than half of the 102 partner facilities audited had violated Apple's policy by working staff more than 60 hours a week on average. Apple also found that employees at 65 of the facilities were often working more than six days in a row.

Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said the company was "saddened and upset by the recent suicides at Foxconn."

"We are in direct contact with Foxconn senior management and we believe they are taking this matter very seriously," she said. "A team from Apple is independently evaluating the steps they are taking to address these tragic events."

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