A series of suicides among workers at the Shenzhen plant of the electronics firm Foxconn has drawn international attention to working conditions in China. The company has promised pay rises; but workers remain sceptic.
Chinese employees walk past the logo of Foxconn at the south entrance of the Shenzhen plant
In the evening, hundreds of young people are pouring out of the Foxconn factory gates after their shift has ended. Shopping in nearby stores or strolling through the night market a few blocks away, they are easy to recognize. Most of them are still wearing their work outfits: black, white or red polo shirts with the company logo on their chest. Of course he has heard of the suicides, one man says. But he doesn't know any details. Nothing happened in his section, and after all, lots of people work at Foxconn.
400,000 workers are employed in the Taiwanese company's plant in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen alone, which has been in the headlines for weeks. Multi-storey production halls rise next to the highway, behind them offices and workers' dormitories.
A dormitory for Foxconn workers
The site on the outskirts of Shenzhen is like a city of its own. Since the beginning of the year, ten workers have committed suicide here, mostly by jumping down from their dormitories. Another three survived their attempts to kill themselves.
The Apple connection
"Conditions here aren't different from other places." The young worker shrugs and politely asks if he can move on, as he is busy. Foxconn has been paying its workers a basic monthly salary of 900 yuan, which is around 110 euros. This is the legal minimum wage in Shenzhen. It is hardly enough to survive, but it is true that this is an average salary in south China's factories, says Geoffrey Grothall. "Foxconn is definitely not the worst place to work."
Grothall works with the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong organization advocating workers' rights in the People's Republic. Workers' suicides regularly happen in other companies as well, he explains. "The difference with Foxconn is that the international media know about their connection with Apple and other big brand names." Among other electronic goods, Foxconn produces the iPhone and the iPad. "And the Chinese media are allowed to cover this because it is a Taiwanese company."
400,000 workers are employed in Foxconn's Shenzhen plant
Zhang Guoqiang has no idea about conditions in other firms. Foxconn is his first employer. Zhang is sitting in a small park near the factory site with two friends. The 19-year-old with a stylish haircut graduated from a vocational school last year and came to Shenzhen a couple of months ago.
Once his colleagues told him in the morning about a suicide quite close to his dormitory, he says, while his friends keep typing messages on their mobile phones. But he didn't go there. "Now who wants to see something like that?" Zhang Guoqiang is not his real name, he doesn't want to reveal his real identity, nor in which section does he work. He only mentions that "we assemble computers".
Zhang shares a dorm room with eight colleagues. He has off in the evenings and on weekends. There is hardly any overtime work in his section, he says. That is why he only gets the basic salary - which is not sufficient at all, he explains: "If you earn 900 yuan a month and you have two off days a week, you end up spending everything at once."
Over 70 percent of Foxconn workers have been working overtime
Work pressure is high
For most Foxconn employees, though, working overtime is normal. According to a study by the Shenzhen city administration quoted by the official China Daily newspaper, 72.5 per cent of Foxconn workers usually work overtime - 28 hours a month on average, an equivalent of almost four working days. Other reports suggest workers work up to 80 hours of overtime, significantly higher than the 36 hours allowed by law. The high work pressure and the strictly regulated life on the factory site are seen as the main reason for the wave of suicides.
Foxconn has meanwhile reacted and announced an immediate increase in wages by 30 per cent. In October there is to be another pay rise, and workers might earn 2,000 yuan (240 euros) without overtime bonuses after that. But whereas Foxconn shares fell by five per cent after these announcements, and analysts already warned that companies might leave China for countries with lower wages, Zhang Guoqiang is not convinced. "I haven't got the money yet. I am sure they'll deduct something from the salary, and in the end it will only by 900 yuan again." His biggest hope is to get a transfer to another section "where I can work overtime".
Author: Mathias Boelinger / tb
Editor: Disha Uppal