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Suicide rate rises at Chinese electronic goods company

May 27, 2010

A suicide spate at Foxconn has thrust the electronics goods giant into the news. The death toll rose to 10 just hours after Terry Gou, the chairman of Foxconn's Taiwanese parent company Hon Hai Precision, apologized.

400,000 workers are based at the Foxconn complex in Shenzhen
400,000 workers are based at the Foxconn complex in ShenzhenImage: AP

Foxconn's southern Chinese plant in Shenzhen is a fortress, kept isolated from the outside world by high walls and a legion of security officers. There are 400,000 workers here – mostly young migrant workers. A handful of them have recently taken their lives.

On Wednesday, Terry Gou, the company's Taiwanese chairman, flew into Shenzhen by private jet to inspect the factory grounds and address a press conference on the matter. Reporters watched as he shouted at the managers.

"I offer my sincerest apologies to society, the entire public, all our employees and their families. We failed to help those who developed psychological problems because they felt badly treated," he said after bowing down.

Threatening working conditions

Terry Gou promised to do everything to stop the suicides, although he also speculated that some of them were due to personal problems. However, many employees blame the working conditions.

Foxconn employees live in on-site residential centers
Foxconn employees live in on-site residential centersImage: AP

"The supervisors are very unfriendly," explains one young man. "They shout at us the whole time and tell us we can leave if we don't behave. One of them told me there was only one thing for me to do – work hard. He said it would make no difference if I left because Foxconn had enough money and workers."

The same threatening style was used in a memo sent to employees asking them to sign a letter promising not to commit suicide or harm themselves or others in an extreme manner. Terry Gou apparently took the letter out of circulation when he found out about it.

"Foxconn customers also to blame"

Foxconn is one of the world's top 500 companies. It manufactures goods for giants such as Dell, Nokia, HP or Apple. Some of these companies have launched investigations into the working conditions at Foxconn.

The electronics manufacturer's stand at a recruitment fair
The electronics manufacturer's stand at a recruitment fairImage: AP

Liu Kaiming, a renowned Chinese labour rights lawyer, says they are also to blame. "Foxconn customers are directly co-responsible for the problems we are currently seeing. Their wealth also stems from these workers. So they bear responsibility. They have to help Foxconn change the management culture and improve working conditions.

"It is hard to imagine that in such a factory 400,000 people live on four square meters without the social network of a city. 90 percent of these workers live away from their families. They came to Shenzhen with their dreams. But despite long hours they barely earn more than the minimum wage – even with overtime. This hardly covers their basic expenses in an expensive city like Shenzhen. The dreams of these young people have been shattered by the harsh reality."

He says that there is only one solution and that is to allow workers to organize and establish independent unions.

This does not seem to be on the cards. Instead, Foxconn has apparently hung safety nets around the buildings and according to reports management wants workers to go to psychiatric institutions for their own protection if they develop mental health problems.

Author: Astrid Freyeisen/act
Editor: Disha Uppal