Suicides roil factory in China

Nine workers at a computer component maker have killed themselves this year. Psychologists and monks have been called in; there are now punching bags. Experts cite an expectation gap of young workers.

Hiring at China factory

A recruiter from Foxconn Technology Group speaks to job applicants this year outside the computer component maker's factory in Shenzhen in southern China's Guangdong province. The tenth company employee to commit suicide this year died this week after falling from a building. (Associated Press / February 23, 2010)

Reporting from 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 after 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."

At Dell, a spokesman said the company was investigating the suicide reports and that the company would take action if it detected poor working conditions at Foxconn.

A representative from Hewlett-Packard noted that "HP vigorously investigates concerns about our suppliers' practices" and is looking into the Foxconn reports specifically.

Analysts said Apple isn't Foxconn's biggest client, but it is the most prominent. That may mean problems at Foxconn's facilities could wind up on Apple's doorstep more frequently.

"They can't be happy about it," said Andy Hargreaves, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities. "They promote themselves as far as being forward thinking in terms of conscience — and this is damaging to their reputation along those lines."

But, he added, there are very few manufacturing firms capable of producing phones at the rate Apple requires to satisfy demand. The company sold 8.75 million iPhones in the last quarter alone.

"If you want to build a lot of handsets and you want them to be competitively priced," Hargreaves said, "you don't have a lot of options."

A reporter for the hard-hitting Southern Weekly who spent 28 days working undercover in the factory said the young employees rarely stop working except to eat and sleep, and that they need to put in grueling extra hours to supplement their monthly wage of $130.

The reporter, Liu Zhiyi, said the workers would sometimes stand for eight hours. "If you don't work overtime, you don't make money," Liu wrote. "But if you take the overtime, the fatigue will make your whole body feel the pain."

Struggling to stop the suicides, the company this month brought in a team of counselors and psychiatrists, as well as Buddhist monks to dispel bad spirits. A hotline was set up with the telephone number 78585, which when pronounced in Mandarin Chinese sounds like "Please help me." Employees were offered rewards of $30 to report coworkers who might be suicidal. A room was set up with a punching bag that features portraits of managers to help the employees release anger, and last week managers began piping music into work areas.

And netting has been strung between the high-rise dormitories to catch anybody who tries to jump.

Chairman Gou said in an interview with Taiwanese television this week that "Foxconn is not a sweatshop that only goes after money and doesn't care about people's lives."

The company did not respond to a request for an interview.

The suicides have been a public relations disaster for Foxconn, with one prominent blogger quipping that the company should change its website to jumpers.com. Some have urged a boycott of its products. In Hong Kong, about 30 protesters holding up mock iPhones demonstrated outside Foxconn's offices urging better rights for workers.

In a report released Tuesday titled "Dying Young: Suicide & China's Booming Economy," the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, which organized the protest, attributed the suicides to the gap between expectations and reality for the new generation of migrant workers.

The report said the workers came from farming families with aspirations of living the Chinese dream in the city, but they soon realized that dream was impossible.

An 18-year-old woman from Jiangxi province, who survived a jump from the seventh story of her dormitory when a tree broke her fall, was quoted as saying she was "under work pressure."

When she jumped she had only about $2.30 in her pocket and was in debt to a friend. "I [was] running into deep [financial] problems," she said.

Labor expert Crothall agreed that younger workers have much higher expectations than their parents.

From the Foxconn factory, he said, the workers "can get on a bus and go to glitzy shopping malls and see people their own age driving BMWs and carrying Louis Vuitton handbags."

Not to mention using iPhones.