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.
Hewlett-Packard Co said it had "high standards in place with our suppliers to ensure workers are treated with dignity and respect and operate in safe work environments".
Factory worker interviews conducted by rights group China Labour Watch, suggest difficult working conditions at some Chinese technology factories.
"Every shift (10 hours), we finish 4,000 Dell computers, all the while standing up," a Foxconn worker recently told China Labour Watch. "We can accomplish these assignments through collective effort, but many of us feel worn out."
Outside the tightly guarded Foxconn industrial complex in Longhua to the north of Shenzhen, workers appeared relaxed but few were willing to talk openly about the deaths.
"Wherever you work has pressure," said a uniformed young man who asked not to be named. "The high compensation package may have made them do it," he added, referring to reported payouts to victims' families of many times an average worker's annual wage.
Worker suicides reflect a deeper problem for China, say experts -- the emotional health of China's vast ranks of migrant workers, many isolated from their families and facing a bleak, low-paid existence on production lines.
"The development of China as a world factory is a fundamental reason causing these suicidal cases," said Pun Ngai, an associate professor of sociology at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University, who was among nine Hong Kong and Chinese academics to write a collective letter last week calling on Foxconn and Chinese officials to improve conditions for young workers.
While data on the scale of suicides in Chinese manufacturing towns is not readily available, anecdotal evidence suggests they are more widespread than previously thought.
Yue Yuen industrial Holdings, the largest branded athletic and casual shoemaker in the world, had four suicides of its workers between July and October 2008 in a factory manufacturing goods for sportswear giant Adidas.
Adidas admitted in a letter seen by Reuters that there had been several suicides at the factories, but linked the deaths to "family separation or emotional stress over family issues".
Interviews with workers in the Pearl River Delta by China Labour Watch identified 78 suicide cases during the past 10 years, in addition to those at Foxconn.
"Suicides (among workers) are a common problem ... but many factories don't admit it and the families of victims are far away," said Li Qiang, the U.S.-based executive director of China Labour Watch. "This problem isn't noticed as much as it should be." (Additional reporting by Lu Yuetang, Kelvin Soh and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong, and Tyrone Siu in Shenzhen)