Suicides Put New Pressure On Foxconn

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Foxconn has confirmed several worker deaths in China since late April, renewing scrutiny of the company’s labour conditions

Four apparent suicides by Chinese workers in recent weeks have raised new questions about labour conditions at Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known by its trade name Foxconn, the contract manufacturer of iPhones iPads and other gadgets.

Taipei-based Foxconn, which builds products for Apple, HP, Microsoft, Sony and others – including the iPhone – , at its Zhengzhou plant,  has been under scrutiny since a series of worker suicides at its Chinese factories in 2010. Since that time the company has implemented measures to improve conditions and has raised wages, as well as taking precautions such as installing anti-suicide nets that were criticised by Western media.

‘A complex issue’

Foxconn, citing police reports, confirmed the deaths of two employees at the Zhengzhou factory, a 23-year-old woman on on 27 April and a 30-year-old married man on 14 May. New York-based China Labour Watch reported the death of a 24-year-old Zhengzhou employee on 24 April, but Foxconn said the man had applied for a job but had not yet started work at the company.

Foxconn Chinese LogoThe deaths all occurred outside of company property, but took place at housing complexes that cater to Foxconn workers, according to government-run news media. Foxconn said an internal review found no evidence the deaths were caused by work-related matters.

“We cannot speculate on individual reasons for these actions,” Foxconn said in a statement. “Suicide is a complex issue and that there is no one reason that can ever be cited for any such incident.” Police in Henan Province said they were investigating the deaths.

A report by IDG News Service indicated that a Foxconn worker in Chongqing, another central Chinese city, was found dead on 11 May, and cited an unnamed Foxconn worker in Zhengzhou as saying that the deaths may be related to Foxconn policies which limit worker interaction.

All four individuals reportedly leapt to their deaths from buildings in apparent suicides.

Foxconn is China’s largest employer, with more than 1.2 million employees in the country. The company posted a 19 percent decline in sales during the first quarter, a loss blamed on disappointing demand for the Apple iPhone 5, which indicates the significance of Apple’s iPhone business to Foxconn.

Harmful conditions

A 2011 report into Foxconn’s working conditions found that workers were exposed to harmful disease, were paid less than the minimum needed to survive and were subjected to military-style management that involved routine humiliation.

While the company has made changes since then, its troubles have persisted; it was for instance forced to suspend production at a factory in northern China in September 2012 following a riot involving around 2,000 workers at a privately run dormitory.

In January 2012, 300 workers on the company’s Xbox assembly line reportedly threatened to commit mass suicide at the company’s facility in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

Foxconn’s measures to improve work conditions have also added to the company’s labour costs – a situation common to companies across China – and in response Foxconn is said to be considering opening factories in the US that would assemble televisions using robots. Foxconn has also shifted some operations to countries such as Vietnam and Mexico.

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