Foxconn workers blame 'meaningless' life for suicides

| Sunday, June 6, 2010

SHANGHAI — Ah Wei has an explanation for Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou on why some of his workers are committing suicide at the company's factory near the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

"Life is meaningless," said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. "Every day, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It's very tough around here."

Conversation on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to 10 minutes every two hours and constant noise from the factory washes past his ear plugs, damaging his hearing, Ah Wei said. The company has rejected three requests for a transfer and his monthly salary of $132 is too meager to send money home to his family, said the 21-year-old, who asked that his real name not be used because he is afraid of his managers.

At least 10 employees at Taipei-based Foxconn have taken their lives this year, half of them in May, according to the company, known as Hon Hai Group. The deaths have forced billionaire founder Gou to open his factories to outside scrutiny and apologize for not being able to stop the suicides. Gou built his company into the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer and now clients from Apple to Hewlett-Packard are probing the company's working conditions.

Steve Jobs, Apple's billionaire chief executive officer, who depends on Foxconn to make the iPhone and iPad, said the suicides are "very troubling."

"We're all over this," said Jobs, speaking Tuesday at a technology conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. His company does one of the best jobs inspecting suppliers, he said, adding the company is "not a sweatshop."

Foxconn's Longhua complex outside Shenzhen spans 1.16 square miles and is criss-crossed by tree-lined streets with a water fountain at the center of the facility. Workers wearing polo shirts emblazoned with "Foxconn" in Chinese characters over their hearts walk along the streets. Men wear blue, women wear red. Security personnel wear white. The complex boasts its own hospital, a collection of restaurants and a swimming pool surrounded by palm trees.

The workers, 86 percent of whom are under 25 years old, live in white dormitories with eight to 10 people sleeping in a room. The living quarters have stairs running up the outside walls and the company has begun covering them with nets to prevent people from jumping.

Inside the compound, at a factory devoted to computer motherboards, rows of young men and women stand at assembly lines, their feet shod in blue slippers and white caps on their heads. The smell of solvent hangs in the air. About 80 percent of the front-line production employees work standing up, some for 12 hours a day for six days a week, according to Liu Bin, a 24-year-old employee.

"It's hard to make friends because you aren't allowed to chat with your colleagues during work," Liu said at Shenzhen Kang Ning Hospital where he was seeking help for insomnia. "Most of us have little education and have no skills so we have no choice but to do this kind of jobs. I feel no sense of achievement and I've become a machine."

The company provides counseling for workers such as Liu, according to supervisor Geng Yubin. Geng, who has worked six years at Foxconn, says between 30 and 50 workers come to him daily for advice on their personal lives. Common problems are homesickness, financial woes, lovers' quarrels and spats with co-workers, Geng said.

"For many of the young people who are here, this is the first time they've been away from home," Geng said. "Without their families, they're left without direction. We try to provide them with direction and help."

Tian Yu fit Geng's description. Tian, 18, left her parents and a life of growing sweet corn and rice in Hubei province, central China, to find a job in Shenzhen after graduating from high school, her father, Tian Jiandang, said. She was isolated and without friends at work, the elder Tian said. She worked at Foxconn for about a year.

On March 17, she jumped from the fourth story of her dormitory in the Longhua complex. She survived and was in a coma for almost two months. Her father still doesn't know why she jumped and is afraid to ask because he thinks it will upset her, he said in an interview by her hospital bed. Foxconn is paying for her medical care.

The suicides and how to stop them mystify Gou.

"Are we going to have this happen again?" said Gou, speaking on May 27 when he opened the factory to the largest media gathering in company history. "From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don't have a grasp on that. No matter how you force me, I don't know."

Less than a day after Gou made the remarks, a 23-year-old Foxconn worker jumped to his death, according to the Shenzhen police. Another worker slit his wrist and was hospitalized.

"The fundamental problem for Foxconn and other Chinese factories is that their business model relies on a low-cost work force sourced from rural areas of China," said Pun Ngai, a professor of applied social sciences at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "Due to its size, Foxconn has to be that much tougher than other factories, and has to become more emotionally detached from its employees than others."

In addition to Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, the world's largest and third-largest personal-computer makers, have begun investigations of Foxconn. Dell spokesman Jess Blackburn and Hewlett-Packard spokeswoman Shelby Watts declined to comment on the status of the investigations.

For the group's more than 800,000 employees in China, Foxconn's success also provides a livelihood. One of them, 30- year-old Chen Zhonglei, said the suicides are due to the immaturity of the workers and not the company's policies.

"These young workers coming in now are not as ready to take on hardship as much as I was when I arrived," Chen said. "Psychologically they're more fragile. These new workers need to come in with an idea about what they want to get out of working here."

Foxconn's working conditions are among the best in China, said Huang Ping-der, an associate professor of business administration at Taipei's National Chengchi University. The recent suicides in China have highlighted weaknesses in the company's management structure, he said.

China had a suicide rate of 16.9 people out of 100,000 taking their own lives in 2004, according to estimates from the World Health Organization.

Foxconn raised monthly pay for workers by 30 percent, spokesman Ding said Wednesday. But the additional money may not be enough to stem the suicides, according to Xiao Qi, a college graduate who works at Foxconn in product development. He earns the equivalent of $293 a month, yet gets no joy from his job, he said.

"I do the same thing every day; I feel empty inside," said Xiao, who said he has considered suicide. "I have no future."

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