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    China Business
     May 22, 2010
Foxconn suicide toll mounts
By Olivia Chung

HONG KONG - Hon Hai Group, which should be celebrating a 35% surge in first-quarter profit from making electronics products such as computers for Hewlett Packard and iPhones for Apple, is instead calling in monks and counselors in an attempt to halt a growing number of suicides among its 800,000-strong Chinese workforce.

So far with little success. A 21-year-old man jumped to his death early on Friday at the Shenzhen operations of Foxconn Technology Group, a Hon Hai affiliate. The fatal jump brought to eight the number of suicides over the past five months at Foxconn's operations in Shenzhen, the fast-growing metropolis and manufacturing hub adjoining Hong Kong. Two other workers survived with injuries after attempting to take their own lives, while

 

the company claims at least 30 other possible attempts have been forestalled since April.

The workers involved in all 10 suicides and attempted suicides were aged between 18 and 24 and had been at the company for about six months. The spate of deaths has baffled Taiwan-based Hon Hai, whose pay and conditions have garnered positive reports. Foxconn, a leader in design, manufacturing, and after-sales services for computer, communication and consumer-electronics companies, has 420,000 employees in Shenzhen, 300,000 of them at Longhua.

The latest suicide came just a week after another 21-year-old Foxconn employee, surnamed Liang, died after jumping off a seven-floor dormitory building on the night of May 14. Police, confirming the suicide, said four knife cuts to his body indicated that Liang had hacked himself before leaping off the building. The motive behind the suicide is still being investigated.

Police said the first eight suicides and attempted suicides were driven either by romantic problems or family issues. Liang, a native of east China’s Anhui province, had been working at the company since last November, but his seven roommates at the building from which he leapt to death offered little clue as to why their fellow-worker killed himself. One said that the roommates, working in different departments, hardly had any communication, Xinhua News Agency reported.

"Working at Foxconn is pretty busy. Chats are rare," the roommate was quoted as saying.

Foxconn spokesperson Liu Kun told Asia Times Online the company "felt sorry" over Liang’s death, but there was no evidence that this and the earlier deaths were directly related to production, operation or management.

Edmund Ding, spokesman for Foxconn parent Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, told Asia Times Online by e-mail that Foxconn always abided by local regulations and paid above the required amount.

He pointed to the free laundry services, free Internet access, sports centers, Olympic-size swimming pools, and better medical and insurance coverage than required by law. Workers are also given opportunities to continue their education "to earn qualifications from high school, college, masters and even PhDs ... [we] are already far better than the majority of corporations worldwide," Ding said.

Nor should the number of suicides be seen as unusual, according to Ding, who quoted a study by psychologist Fan Fumin, who was invited to Shenzhen by Foxconn for consultation after the seventh case. Fan, a professor and vice chairman of the department of psychology at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said that the suicide rate among Foxconn employees is about two to three per 100,000, similar to the rate among college students.

"The suicide rate at Foxconn is not high," said Fan in an interview with the CCTV on May 11. According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in China is 13.0 per 100,000 males and 14.8 per 100,000 females in 1999.

Liu, in the same broadcast, conceded that their were loopholes in management, but said the company was at its wits end to explain why so many workers had tried to kill themselves and how to avoid similar incidents from occurring.

"Do we really have preventions in place? Can we really touch 420,000 people's heart? As a business, we are not capable of doing this. And I don't know what reason will cause the next jump?" he said in the interview.

That very day, May 11, Zhu Chenling became the next victim Liu had feared. Zhu, a 24-year-old Foxconn employee, killed herself by jumping from a rented apartment in Shenzhen.

Liu said Foxconn had taken steps to forestall such tragedies, including setting up of "an effective and non-gratuitous information system where employees could inform supervisors about their colleagues' emotional problems", with a reward of between 200 yuan (US$28) and 500 yuan for the informants.

A suicide prevention hotline set up in April, with a number, "785785", that sounds similar to "please help me" in Putonghua, has been flooded with calls for help or reports of suspicious cases, Liu said.

"In the past month, with the suicide prevention measures, we have successfully prevented more than 30 possible suicides," Liu said to the Asia Times Online.

Liu insisted no foul play was involved in the suicides and each was confirmed by police as being for personal reasons.

Victims' families are far from convinced. Ma Hui, whose 19-year-old brother, Ma Xiangqian, was found lying dead near the stairway of a company dormitory on January 23, is still confronting Foxconn.

"[My brother] must have died from [poor work conditions]," said Ma, who had earlier worked for Foxconn.

The police first said Ma died from health-related problems then later changed it to death from falling from a height. The family challenged the police to explain wound marks on Ma's body and why closed-circuit television footage of the dormitory appeared to have been edited.

Another former employee, who asked not to be named, echoed Ma's views, complaining about "the tremendous workload" at Foxconn and saying it was not possible to make money without working overtime - "I often worked past midnight and took more than 100 extra shifts each month".

He said he quit after two years because of the tremendous workload.

“The basic pay is about 900 yuan a month. But with overtime payment, we could get about 1,800 yuan," he said. In Shenzhen, the minimum wage is about 850 yuan a month.

Regarding Ma's case, Foxconn spokesman Ding said the police and the Shenzhen and Shanghai coroners had conducted several investigations and concluded there was no indication of foul play.

Ding said the company will continue to intensify its efforts and believed that the suicide phenomenon required broader efforts from the society as a whole. To that end, the company has broadened collaboration with local government agencies and institutes to provide emotional and psychological training to about 100 employees, who will be deployed to provide psychological counseling to employees with emotional problems starting from this month.

"The reality of the situation is we are a growing company and currently have nearly 800,000 employees in the whole group, which is a great responsibility," he said in an e-mail reply.

Oxfam Hong Kong and other non-governmental organizations had evaluated Foxconn to be amongst leaders in corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices in 2008 and 2009, Ding said.

The suicides come two years after Foxconn and US-based Apple, which outsources the manufacturing of iPhones to the Taiwanese company, faced claims of abusive work practices. The allegations were found to be largely unfounded, according to AP.

Apple spokeswoman Jill Tan declined to comment on the suicide cases at Foxconn.

"I'd like to emphasize that Apple takes such concerns seriously and is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility wherever Apple products are made," she said in an e-mail reply to Asia Times Online. "The companies that we do business with must provide safe working conditions, treat employees with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes."

Apple concluded in a 2007 report that some employees were working more than Foxconn's mandated maximum hours during peak production times and that many workers were getting insufficient days off.

Some insight into working conditions at Foxconn is provided by a diary written by 22-year-old Liu Zhiyi, who spent 28 days working in Foxconn’s main factory while an intern for Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou newspaper. She said the production lines at Foxconn started at 4 a.m., with thousands of uniformed workers, all dressed alike, having to stand as they worked at least eight hours a day.

"With a basic salary of just 900 yuan, they spare no effort to work overtime ... But only reliable workers and those who have good relations with department heads are offered such overtime opportunities," said Liu's diary, published by the weekly. Ten workers shared one dormitory, but many did not know each others' names, she wrote.

One striking feature of Foxconn employees is their young age, with 85% of the 420,000 workers in Shenzhen born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Foxconn.

Still, the well-publicized rash of suicides has left many workers unmoved, and has not deterred young people applying in their thousands for work the plant, or lining up in the Shenzhen complex's reception zone for job interviews.

One mechanic told the Asia Times Online that he didn't care about the suicide cases, saying the company usually conducted talks on the cases and the reasons behind them, while offering psychological counseling after the tragedies happened, which staff are free to attend.

He also pointed to the broader environment of Shenzhen, which over the past three decades has become a magnet for millions of workers from the rest of China keen to share in the country's economic growth. The city, in the 1970s little more than a village, is now home to an estimated more than 14 million people, most far from their roots and families, and a demographic dominated by young, restless and energetic people, with an at times notorious night life.

"Have you been to Shenzhen? We have learned a lot of 'surprises' here," the mechanic said, using a term referring to things that are "not very nice" - murders, traffic accidents, robberies and other aspects of the downside to city life. "So such suicide cases raise no concerns for me ... The only concern I have now is my little son's security after six attacks on schoolchildren in China in two months."

Children in schools and colleges across China have been killed or injured in attacks since late March, most recently on Wednesday, when nine students in southern Hainan province were injured by men armed with cleavers.

Meanwhile, Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou, who is also president of Foxconn, has said he will invite eminent monks from the famous Mount Wutai religious center in northern Shanxi province to release the souls from suffering and make a blessing to a peaceful future of the company.

Hon Hai in April said first quarter profit rose 34.76% to NT$17.99 billion (US$560 million) from a year earlier as sales increased 49% to NT$414.8 billion.

Olivia Chung is a senior Asia Times Online reporter.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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