Suicides expose stresses of China factory life

Tue May 25, 2010 9:34am EDT
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By James Pomfret and Tyrone Siu

HONG KONG/SHENZHEN (Reuters) - A spate of nine employee deaths at global contract electronics manufacturer Foxconn, Apple's main supplier of iPhones, has cast a spotlight on some of the harsher aspects of blue-collar life on the Chinese factory floor.

The worker deaths at Foxconn factories this year, initially dismissed as isolated incidents, have since multiplied and triggered a growing controversy and scrutiny of Foxconn's tight and secretive corporate culture, raising broader questions about the social cost of China's cheap labor manufacturing model.

The latest death, the ninth in the past six months, followed a similar pattern of behavior -- young factory workers plunging from buildings in a Foxconn industrial complex.

While not all have been confirmed as suicides, this was the 11th such incident at a Foxconn plant this year according to the official Xinhua news agency. Two of the 11 who survived were gravely injured in what were described as "suicide attempts", including 18-year-old factory worker Rao Leqin whose fall was broken by a tree.

Foxconn has largely blamed the deaths on the workers' personal problems, but set up counseling hotlines, hiring new counselors and monitoring workers for "abnormal emotional outbursts".

"I believe we are definitely not a factory of blood and sweat," Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou said earlier this week. "A corporation of 900,000 workers is very difficult to manage. I'm confident we will very quickly have the situation under control."

The stakes for Foxconn, the key manufacturer of Apple's iPhone and iPad, are potentially huge. A unit of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry, it is one of the largest manufacturers in China, employing nearly 800,000 workers there.

An Apple spokesman was not immediately available to comment. PC giants Lenovo and Acer, both customers of Hon Hai and Foxconn, declined to comment.   Continued...

<p>Employees of Foxconn speak to reporters outside one of the tech firm's factories in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen May 25, 2010. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu</p>