Chinese Factory Under Scrutiny As Suicides Mount

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Nicky Loh / Reuters

Foxconn headquarters in Tucheng, Taiwan

The massive Foxconn factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen is known for assembling famous electronic goods like Apple's iPhone and iPad. But in recent months it has gained a darker image, as a place where distraught workers regularly throw themselves to their deaths. The latest fatality came on Tuesday morning, when a 19-year-old employee died in a fall in the company's Shenzhen compound, according to the state-run Xinhua news service. He was the ninth worker this year to have died in a fall from factory buildings on Foxconn's properties in Shenzhen; two have survived suicide attempts, according to state-media reports. Another teenager, who the company revealed this month died after jumping from a company building in Hebei province in January, brings the total employee death toll from falls to 10 this year.

The string of deaths has drawn attention to the labor practices of a highly successful Fortune 500 company that has 420,000 workers on its payroll in Shenzhen alone. Two dozen activists protested outside the company's Hong Kong offices on Tuesday, calling on Foxconn to improve working conditions and raise wages. The Taiwan-owned company, which is an arm of the Hon Hai Group, has defended the treatment of its workers. "A lot of things cannot be said at this point, but we are quietly doing our job," CEO Terry Gou told a business forum on Monday. With over 900,000 employees globally in the Hon Hai Group, Gou acknowledged the difficulties of employee management. "But," he said, "we are confident we will get things under control shortly."

Working conditions at Foxconn's factories have been under scrutiny for years. The attention was heightened in 2009 when 25-year-old employee Sun Danyong, who had been accused by management of losing an iPhone prototype, jumped to his death from his apartment in Shenzhen. Chinese press reports said Sun, who grew up in a poor village in Yunnan province and attended the top-rated Harbin Institute of Technology, might have been physically abused by company security guards searching for the missing device.

Like Sun, the Foxconn workers who died this year have all been young, ranging in age from 18 to 24. The cases all differ, but there are common themes. "They feel a sense of pressure — pressure to make more money, pressure to work harder, pressure from family or difficulties in personal relationships," says Geoffrey Crothall, an editor for the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong–based workers rights' group. Experts say suicides can happen in clusters, with people in a group influenced by earlier incidents.

The dead have all been migrant workers, and for many Foxconn was their first job. The company pays most of its assembly-line workers in Shenzhen the city's minimum wage of $130 a month, and many work significant overtime hours in order to maximize their incomes. "The work [at Foxconn] is long, monotonous and boring," says Liu Kaiming, a labor researcher and executive director of the Shenzhen-based Institute of Contemporary Observation. "The speed is very fast and you can't slow down, for 10 hours a day at the minimum. You can see how someone could easily become numb and turn into a machine."

After hours, many workers live in on-site dormitories, where heavy staff turnover makes long-lasting personal connections impossible. That combination — long workdays and a minimal social safety net — leaves vulnerable young workers with few places to turn, says Liu. "Foxconn has 420,000 people; in the U.S. that would be a big city. Even in China that would be a big city, but it's a city without any families. Everyone is working. They live in a dormitory for seven months and don't know their own roommates' names."

In 1999, the most recent year for which numbers are available, China reported its national suicide rate was 13 men and 14.8 women out of every 100,000 people. That would put the suicide rate at Foxconn below that of the population as a whole, though a lack of newer statistics makes a comparison difficult. Suicides at factories in southern China have not been uncommon over the past decade, says Liu, but in recent years improvements in telecommunications like the proliferation of mobile phones have made it easier for workers to disseminate information about deaths. And given the size and prominence of Foxconn, and its famous clients such as Apple, Sony, HP and Dell, the suicides at its Shenzhen manufacturing center have earned the company significant unwanted attention in recent weeks.

Foxconn says it has provided social options like libraries and sports for its workers, and recently has prevented many more attempted suicides. But labor activists argue it needs to make more fundamental changes, like paying higher wages so that workers don't feel forced to work so many overtime hours.

In mid-May the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekend ran a story by a young reporter who spent a month working undercover at the factory. Liu Zhiyi wrote that the workers all dreamed of wealth, but felt that they had few opportunities outside the company. The workplace wasn't a sweatshop, Liu wrote, but the assembly-line work slowly dehumanized the employees. "It seems as if while they operate the machines, the machines also operate them," the story said. "Parts flow by, and their youth is worn down to the rhythm of the machines."

With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing