Foxconn, the Chinese high-tech manufacturer and Apple partner, has been so shaken by a cluster of recent suicide attempts that it's hiring in mental health staff to aid its employees. There's even a Buddhist monk on staff.
We know of six suicides so far at Foxconn in 2010, though it's possible there were more attempts that went unreported, given the highly sensitive nature of news like this for a company with a high-profile client such as Apple. The bad news seems to have started back in July 2009 when a young tech guy was implicated in the loss of an iPhone prototype, and after what seemed to be heavy-handed management tactics, he chose to end his life. Since then several other workers have leaped to their deaths, some from the Foxconn factory, others from worker apartments.
Why so many deaths? That's a question that's been plaguing Foxconn, and causing some excitable media commentary on the matter. We've examined the situation before, and noted that several of the employees may have had non-work-related reasons for their decision, that the statistics of clustering can often be surprising and make it seem like a conspiracy when it's really a coincidence, and that the suicide rate in China is higher than you may think.
Now we know that Foxconn has some 800,000 workers, which makes the situation looks even less conspiratorial. According to the World Health Organization, for every 100,000 people in China every year some 13 men and 14.8 women will commit suicide (compared to 11.8 men and 3.3 women in the U.K, for example). This means Foxconn's statistics are actually commensurate with the suicide rate norms for such a large community as its workforce, and in fact the employee suicide rate is below what you may expect for a random sampling of Chinese citizens.
Still, the deaths are a terribly sad situation, and Foxconn is taking steps to exert some influence over the mental health of its employees. Bloomberg is reporting that Foxconn's sent out over 100 counselors into its numerous installations, and set up a hotline for "emotional support" in times of stress. There're even prayers available from Buddhist monks.
Given the generally sorry state of Chinese state health care (though there's a $123 billion effort to improve things over the next few years) this means Foxconn may actually be being rather a caring-sharing employer, not the big villain it's been portrayed as. Perhaps the company's motivations aren't entirely pure--its management must be acutely aware that Apple will shy away from a truly bad PR situation at the first opportunity--but at least it's acting swiftly to try to help its staff.