Tania Branigan in Beijing, guardian.co.uk
Latest Foxconn suicide raises concern over factory life in China
Overcrowding and long hours adding to workplace stress, warns expert
A spate of suicides by employees of an electronics giant in China has fuelled concern about the pressures of factory life and the emotional vulnerability of young employees.
Taiwanese-owned Foxconn last week saw the seventh such death this year, despite hiring Buddhist monks and 100 personal counsellors in an attempt to stem the problem. The company is one of the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturers and is thought to supply Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard among others.
Police confirmed at the weekend that a young man with knife wounds had fallen from a building at one of the firm’s plants in Shenzhen, southern China, on Friday.
Another employee died after falling from a building earlier last week, but police have yet to confirm the cause of her death.
Foxconn has expressed sorrow over the seven deaths, all involving workers aged between 18 and 24, and two suicide attempts. It blamed personal issues such as romantic troubles, family problems and loneliness, but has called in experts for advice on preventing further deaths.
The company has set up a helpline for depressed workers, established rooms with punchbags to help employees vent frustrations and offered 200 yuan (?20) bonuses to staff who warn managers when colleagues have emotional problems. It has even called in Buddhist monks to conduct religious rites to get rid of misfortune, hoping to dispel staff anxieties.
It said the measures had allowed it to prevent 20 “possible” suicides in the past three weeks, although it has not explained whether that figure refers to actual or threatened attempts, or simply to the identification of potentially vulnerable workers.
Suicide clusters, often involving young people, have occurred in many countries. Experts say that suicidal behaviour can increase among people exposed to suicides.
The firm also has a huge number of employees, with an estimated 800,000 workers, more than 300,000 of them at a single plant in Shenzhen.
The World Health Organisation quotes China’s suicide rate as 14 per 100,000 people in 1999 and some believe that an underestimate. A study published in the Lancet in 2002 put the rate at 23 per 100,000 people; in comparison, the UK saw 17.7 suicides per 100,000 men in 2008 and 5.4 per 100,000 women.
A Foxconn spokesman has said the company had usually seen only one or two suicides a year. Most of this year’s deaths also seem to have involved the same method.
Another spokesman, Arthur Huang, wrote in an email: “Foxconn has provided workers with a far better environment and benefits [than] the manufacturing industry as a whole, yet has long striven to be a leader in corporate social responsibility and continuously pushes for [improvement].”
Geoff Crothall, of Hong Kong-based campaign group China Labour Bulletin, said Foxconn’s new measures were an attempt to ameliorate the problem but did not go to the root of the issue.
While stressing that the causes of each death would be complex, he added: “These young workers have to work 10 or 11 hours a day and are under extreme pressure to produce products under very intensive conditions. Once they get off production line they live in cramped dormitories, often with strangers. They’re away from their families and other support networks. It can be difficult for them. This is not just Foxconn; this is the way the vast majority of factories operate across China.”
Foxconn’s rival Huawei, also in Shenzhen, saw several suicides between 2006 and 2008. Six employees reportedly killed themselves or died in uncertain circumstances.
An opinion piece in the English language Global Times newspaper argued that people should pay more attention to the “fiercely competitive atmosphere, the pressure [migrant workers] are under and the effects it has on them.”
Others argue that younger people are less used to dealing with hardship than their parents’ generation and lack the resilience to cope with problems.
Last year Foxconn worker Sun Danyong took his life [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/22/apple-worker-suicide-prototype-missing” title=”Sun Danyong took his life] after his house was raided during an investigation into the disappearance of an Last year Foxconn worker Sun Danyong took his life [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/22/apple-worker-suicide-prototype-missing” title=”Sun Danyong took his life] after his house was raided during an investigation into the disappearance of an iPhone prototype.