Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer that is a main maker of the iPad, is scrambling to adjust the way it runs its factories in China following a series of suicides by workers that have triggered criticism of its practices.
A 21-year-old employee jumped to his death from a building at the group’s largest manufacturing base in Shenzhen on Friday, local police said, marking the 10th suicide bid among Foxconn workers this year and taking the death toll to eight.
“In Foxconn’s more than 20 years of history, we’ve never had anything like this,” Liu Kun, spokesman at the group’s China headquarters, told the Financial Times. He also confirmed that the group was reviewing whether its management needed to do anything to help care for its workers.
Foxconn’s Longhua plant has a workforce of 300,000, making it the size of a small city with employees living and working on site. Psychiatrists point out that the number of deaths at the site is not unusually high compared with China’s estimated overall suicide rate of about 15 per 100,000 people per year. However, Foxconn said it had registered fewer than than three suicides among its Shenzhen workforce last year.
The suicides have raised questions about the factory town model that underpins much of China’s manufacturing base.
The company – which is normally highly secretive and rarely allows site visits of its factories – makes products such as smartphones, PCs, digital cameras and LCD televisions under contract for companies including Apple, Sony, Dell and Nokia.
It said it was giving psychological training to 100 staff who are to return to the production lines next week to observe fellow workers and spot early signs of emotional instability. Foxconn is also offering rewards to employees who report signs of crisis among co-workers.
It has reorganised its counselling facilities to encourage workers to use them, including creation of a help hotline, a new counselling centre and events to encourage staff to build social ties with co-workers.
But as three Foxconn staff have died after falling from buildings within two weeks, heated debate has sprung up over working conditions at the plant.
China Labor Watch, a US-based group, said that a recent survey found Foxconn workers complaining about the pressures of their working environment.
Chinese state media have started asking critical questions as well. And Foxconn has become a hot-button issue on the Chinese internet, with activists trying to organise a “netizen observer group” to infiltrate the Foxconn workforce.