Sunday, July 31, 2011

Suicide streak in China

Suicide Streak Troubles Apple Supplier in China

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (May 25) --
A spate of suicides at a Taiwan-owned firm assembling iPads and other gadgets in China has drawn protests from rights groups over poor labor conditions.

In the early hours of this morning, a 19-year-old male worker jumped or fell from a tall building at a Foxconn factory in China. He was the 11th employee of the firm to do so since late January, and the ninth to have died.

Foxconn is a unit of Hon Hai Precision Industry, the world's largest contract electronics firm.

A small group of labor activists protested today outside Foxconn's offices in Hong Kong, demanding better worker protections at its factories in China and burning paper iPhones in a symbolic Chinese ritual offering to the deceased.

"We urge Foxconn to evaluate its management to improve working conditions in their factories," said Debby Chan, of the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), which organized the protest. "It's not only the workers who commit suicide who suffer; all the workers at Foxconn experience this same pressure."

Protesters want Foxconn to make it easier for workers to lodge complaints, establish a better union and raise wages above the current minimum wage given to most workers, 900 yuan (about $130) a month.

The troubling string of deaths -- all believed to be suicides -- has prompted the company, led by president and celebrity billionaire Terry Gou, to bring in psychologists and chanting monks to offer mental and spiritual salve. Meanwhile, the mainland Chinese and Taiwanese media have been full of unflattering reports on working conditions at the firm.

"Who can bring the Foxconn 'suicide express' to a halt?" one mainland paper wrote. Other media have dubbed Foxconn the "go-to-die" company, a pun on its Chinese name. China's CCTV ran a three-part program on the suicides in early May.

The suicides prompted one armless man in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen to write inspirational calligraphy with his feet encouraging Foxconn workers not to give up hope, according to an article translated from the Chinese at "To Foxconn brothers and sisters: life is priceless ... there is always a way out," he wrote, according to the site.

One Chinese reporter for the Southern Weekend newspaper recently went undercover for 28 days as a Foxconn worker to report first-hand on conditions there.

"This factory's workers rule the world's finest gadgets' assembly lines with their two hands," wrote Liu Zhiyi, in an article translated by Richard Lai at "But it seems like while they're controlling the machines, the machines also have them dominated."

According to Taiwan's Apple Daily, Chinese Internet users have even formed the "Foxconn Netizens' Monitoring Group," which has called Foxconn a sweatshop and blamed it for nine major problems, including having a toothless union, employing illegal security guards who beat and scold workers, and forcing workers to do overtime.

Foxconn did not respond to a request for comment. But in a rare public statement on the suicides Monday, president Terry Gou told Taiwan reporters "we are absolutely not a sweatshop." He said the company had some 800,000 employees in China and it wasn't easy to manage such a large work force, and that Hon Hai would act quickly to address the current problems.

The 11 workers were all between ages 18 and 25. Rights groups said their desperation is an indictment of a labor model in China that puts young migrant workers from the countryside into dead-end, repetitive and high-pressure factory work in coastal industrial zones, where they're cut off from the support of family and friends.

"Their loss should awaken wider society to reflect upon the costs of a development model that sacrifices dignity for economic growth," SACOM said in an essay released today.

One jumper who survived cited work pressure, according to New China Net; others had mental problems related to work pressure or financial and relationship troubles, according to Chinese media.

Another rights group, China Labor Watch, wrote in a May 18 report that Foxconn workers it interviewed blamed the recent spate of suicides on work pressure, with some pointing also to a "lack of community."

China Labor Watch blamed the suicides on "Foxconn's military-style administration and harsh working conditions, Taiwanese administrators' disrespect for mainland workers, and management strategies aimed at the creation of only short-term jobs." It said the firm "must initiate a thoroughgoing analysis of life on its production lines -- not just roll out more superficial, short-term fixes."

Foxconn declined comment on those criticisms.

Foxconn assembles iPads and iPhones for Apple at its factories in China, according to rights groups and industry analysts, as well as products for most of the top electronics brands.

"When we look into working conditions of factories, we not only blame suppliers, we see responsibility for the brands, too," said SACOM's Chan. "They earn the lion's share of the profit, and also give a lot of pressure to clients -- for example short delivery time and lower costs."

But she said Foxconn is such a large-scale firm that it has the "primary responsibility" for its workers, Chan said.

Asked for comment about concerns of the suicides at one of its key suppliers, Apple spokesperson Jill Tan responded in an e-mail that "Apple takes such concerns seriously and is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility wherever Apple products are made. The companies that we do business with must provide safe working conditions."

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