Chinese worker suicides highlighted

| Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A spate of suicides among Chinese workers making the Apple iPad, Sony Ericsson phones and other electronic items has drawn fresh attention to working conditions in the factories supplying consumers worldwide with must-have gadgets.

At 6:20 a.m. Tuesday, 19-year-old migrant worker Li Hai threw himself to his death from the roof of a building at electronics manufacturer Foxconn in the southern boom town of Shenzhen.

He was the ninth company employee to kill himself this year. Two other would-be suicides have survived their injuries.

Foxconn's massive complex, employing more than 400,000 people, has a reputation for strict discipline, said Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for "China Labour Bulletin," which monitors working conditions in China.

Terry Gou, founder of Foxconn's Taiwanese parent company, Hon Hai Precision Industry, insisted Monday that his firm does not run "a blood and sweat factory."

By Chinese standards, Foxconn is not a bad employer. The company pays social security contributions for its employees, offers cheap housing and food, and pays overtime at the legal rate. It has no difficulty attracting young migrant workers from the countryside.

But a report in the respected "Southern Weekly" newspaper in Guangzhou, China, earlier this month, written by an intern who spent a month working undercover at Foxconn, painted a grim picture of alienation.

Workers are required to stand at fast-moving assembly lines for eight hours without a break and without talking, the journalist reported. Workers, sharing sleeping accommodations with nine other workmates, often do not know each others' names.

The basic starting pay of roughly $130 a month -- "barely enough to live on" -- can be augmented to a more respectable $295 only by working 30 hours of overtime a week.

The string of suicides at Foxconn is "not grossly abnormal" compared with the national suicide rate, according to Michael Phillips, head of the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center and the leading foreign authority on suicide in China.

He put the national suicide rate at about 15 per 100,000, based on incomplete data. By comparison, the U.S. rate is 11 per 100,000.

The incidence has drawn widespread attention in the local press because of Foxconn's work for Apple, Crothall said.

The company has taken a number of steps to try to halt the suicides, from setting up a helpline and offering rewards to employees who point out colleagues' unusual behavior to hiring counselors and bringing in Buddhist priests to exorcise the factory and pacify the spirits of those who died.

Phillips warned that a copy-cat effect may have set in, with each suicide prompting another, which could be hard to break.

Crothall suggested raising wages to a livable level to reduce overtime. "Then they would have more time to socialize, to be with their friend and just generally to have a life, which at the moment they don't have."

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