Four suicide attempts in four weeks: That's apparently the tally at China-based high-tech manufacturers Foxconn. If that name rings a bell, it's because it's the company that makes big chunks of Apple's iPad hardware.
The most recent incident happened yesterday, with an 18-year-old new worker called Rao jumping from factory buildings. A tree broke her fall, so she survived but is reported to be severely injured. On March 29th, a worker called Liu leaped from his dormitory window, wearing his Foxconn factory shirt, and on March 11th a man named Li killed himself by leaping from a building. On March 7th a female worker named Tian jumped out of her dormitory, but survived. Tian cited extreme pressure as her motivation, and Chinese media notes that Li had his bonus pay stolen at Chinese new year, while Rao is alleged to have been fighting with her boyfriend before the incident.
Four attempted suicides represents a big cluster, over such a small period of time. It also coincides with the iPad launch timescale—there must have been stiff pressure from Apple for Foxconn to deliver its initial shipment in time, and you can bet that pressure hasn't abated as they'll also have been pushing for the follow-on batch to arrive swiftly. Foxconn, remember, is also the company that exerted extraordinary pressure on recent university grad and worker Sun Danyong, who lost an iPhone prototype then killed himself. The secrecy of the police investigations didn't help with conspiracy theories, either. But is there really something fishy going on at Foxconn?
There are two mitigating factors here. Firstly, suicide is more frequent in China than in many nations—the World Health Organization reports 13.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 (with more women than men, interestingly.) It's arguable that this rate has risen in the intervening years as Chinese social and technological development has skyrocketed—and the "real" rate may be higher yet, as you might think the secretive Chinese authorities wouldn't want to report truly damning stats. The rate for the U.S. in 2005 was 11.1 per 100,000, by comparison, so China's suicide rate is technically higher. Secondly, while Foxconn workers are indeed likely to be under increased pressure to deliver Apple's super high-tech product on time, this is typical for any manufacturer facing a high-profile manufacturing deadline. Sure, it's possible that conditions in the factory wouldn't stand up to rigorous health and safety regulations we'd apply. But it's also notable that this increased pressure may just expose employees other personal crises, resulting in more suicide incidents—Foxconn itself may not be directly at fault. Statistical random clustering is also a surprising phenomenon that occurs more frequently than "common sense" thinking would suggest.
This is not an apologist post for Foxconn, and indeed the investigation that Apple carried out in the wake of Sun's death did turn up illegal practices. But portions of the media will throw themselves at this suicide news, damning Apple and Foxconn for human rights abuses in the name of frivolous technology. And it's not strictly true.
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