What’s Behind Foxconn Suicides?
Foxconn, one of China’s largest companies, is making headlines, and not in a good way. The Taiwanese-owned, mainland-based contract manufacturer of electronics parts for global giants such as Apple, Intel, HP, Sony, and Nokia is facing a rash of suicides among its employees. So far this year, nine Foxconn workers have killed themselves — mainly by jumping off the roofs of their dormitories — while another two have injured themselves in the attempt. The incidents have attracted media attention and intense speculation about what might be the cause.
Some blame the company’s labor practices. They say employees are placed under immense pressure, poorly paid, verbally abused by harsh supervisors, and constantly reminded they are expendible (the company says it receives over 8,000 job applications each day). Suggestions that something might be seriously amiss date back to July 2009, when a 25 year-old employee jumped to his death from a 12-story apartment after he supposedly lost a top-secret prototype Apple iPhone. Prior to his death, he told friends he had been beaten up and humiliated by the company’s security guards.
Others argue that Foxconn’s difficulties are mainly due to the demographics of its workforce: mainly young (age 18-24) males, living far away from home for the first time. Foxconn’s factory, located in Shenzhen (in the Pearl River Delta, just across the border from Hong Kong) is a huge complex that employs and houses a staggering 300,000 workers, making it China’s largest factory.
Out of curiosity, I sought out the suicide rate for China as a whole, which in 1999 (the last year available) stood at 13.9 per 100,000 people (interestingly, China is one of the few countries in the world that has a higher suicide rate among women, 14.8, than men, 13.0, and its rate for women is the highest in the world). Given the national average, and given the fact that young, single Foxconn employees, from a demographic viewpoint, probably have a higher suicide risk than average, the number of suicides at Foxconn may not be as remarkable as first appears. Nine suicides in five months works out to an average of 21.6 per year. For a population of 300,000, even assuming the lower suicide rate (13.0) among men, one would expect to see as many as 39 suicides in a year. If this were a small city of 300,000 people, 39 apparently unrelated suicides might not catch much attention, but because it’s a company town, a far smaller collection of incidents looks like a work-related epidemic. That doesn’t necessarily mean Foxconn is blameless, but it’s an important piece of perspective to keep in mind.
In any event, Foxconn’s management is gearing up to respond to what it sees as a worrying (and potentially damaging) trend. Some of its measures, like 24-hour suicide hotlines, make sense, but others seem a bit odd. AFP reports the company is hanging nets around its factory buildings to prevent workers from jumping off, and organizing regular roof patrols. It’s also making employees sign a letter promising not to take their own lives (good luck enforcing that). Perhaps more ominously, the letter supposedly gives the company permission to send them to a medical institution if they appear to be acting abnormally (some are refusing to sign for fear an argument with their boss might lead to them being institutionalized). It’s hard to imagine this crackdown is making Foxconn a better place to work.
UPDATE (6/1/2010): For those who are interested, a Shanghai-based Western expert on suicide in China weighs in on the Foxconn situation in today’s Wall Street Journal.