The Foxconn Suicides

Few news items regarding China have been more puzzling than the recent string of suicides and attempted suicides at a giant factory complex in Shenzhen where electronics manufacturer Foxconn employs 300,000 workers. In the first five months of this year, 13 workers have tried to commit suicide, with 10 succeeding.

Foxconn, a subsidiary of Hon Hai Precision Industries, is the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, serving some of the best-known names in the consumer electronics industries. Among other products familiar to consumers, Foxconn in China assembles Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads. The deaths have prompted Apple and Hewlett Packard to initiate probes into the situation. Sony, Nokia and Nintendo, which also produce products at the plant, said they would also investigate the suicides.

The suicides have left industry and China observers scratching their heads, trying to understand why this is happening at this particular factory at this particular time. However, it’s sometimes easier to explain why something isn’t true than it is to provide a rational explanation for events such as these. That’s what I told Sam Gustin, a senior writer at DailyFinance who covers general business news with a particular focus on technology, finance, digital media and government regulation, whether sweatshop conditions at the factory had lead to the suicides.
Here is what I told him:

This is a puzzling one, Sam, but I believe that placing the blame on sweatshop conditions at Foxconn is far too simplistic. The real reasons, and I don’t know whether we will ever know them for sure, are bound to be much more complicated, as discussed in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

The reasons I don’t think the suicides have been caused by sweatshop conditions are:

1. Electronics have been manufactured for many years in plants like the one operated by Foxconn. In my time here, I’ve never heard of such a suicide epidemic. Why all of a sudden?

2. Given all of the press and the activities of human rights groups over the years, high profile companies like Apple, HP and others. pay great attention to working conditions at their suppliers in China. Audits, which take into account a range of issues such as safety in addition to quality controls, are conducted frequently. If working conditions were that bad, they would be telling management and would ultimately distance themselves from the factory if corrective actions weren’t taken.

3. Workplace deaths, suicide or otherwise, are taken seriously by the government. Each one of the deaths would have been investigated by the local government and reported up the chain. I imagine that the leadership in Beijing is also giving this much attention, creating even more pressure on the local officials to take action against the factory if they see abuses. I haven’t seen any evidence of this happening.

4. China passed a comprehensive labor law in late 2007 which prescribes regulations on a wide range of issues—such as working hours, overtime policies, holidays, vacations, maternity leaves — and also gives great power to workers to report grievances. China has specifically targeted factories with poor working conditions that tend to export low value-added, high labor content products as part of its efforts to move up the value chain. The combination of the new labor law, stricter enforcement of existing environmental regulations, the rollback of some export rebates, and, of course, general economic conditions caused 65,000 factories in southern China to close in the first part of 2008.

At the same time that all of this is happening, there has been a spate of attacks on schools and schoolchildren in China, which is also unusual and unprecedented. I’m not a psychologist, but there must be a broader, sociological explanation for both recent epidemics.

Sam’s article, Steve Jobs: Apple Is ‘All Over’ Foxconn Suicides, summarized my comments.

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