The following is my latest post on Digital East Asia.
The string of tragic suicides at the Chinese manufacturing facilities of Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group (PINK: FXCNY) continues. At 10:50pm on May 14, Mr. Liang, a 21 year old male employee from Anhui province, jumped from the 7th floor of Fuhua dormitory, in Foxconn’s Shenzhen Longhua production base (news link in Chinese here).
There was some initial speculation over the cause of the death, as police found a knife at the scene and 4 knife wounds on the victim. Shenzhen police has announced that they have ruled out foul play, and sees the knife wounds as self mutilation prior to suicide. However the victim’s relatives understandably have some doubts over the death, and have told reporters they will push the police to investigate further.
As a reminder, Foxconn is a leading global manufacturer of electronics and computer products for a who’s who of consumer tech companies – Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL), Sony Corporation ((ADR) NYSE: SNE), Hewlett-Packard Company (NYSE: HPQ), Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN),Nokia Corporation ((ADR) NYSE: NOK), Motorola, Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Nintendo Co., Ltd ((ADR) OTC: NTDOY), Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ: MSFT), Dell Inc. (NASDAQ: DELL) and Cisco Systems Inc. (NASDAQ: CSCO) — and is notorious for its secrecy and alleged excessive labor practices.
I find this string of deaths shocking and tragic, and if anything, they should serve as a prime example of the deep social issues underneath China’s rise. A detailed discussion of the various factors that caused this tragedy is outside the scope of this blog; however I would like to briefly share some thoughts.
Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend), one of China’s most liberal and courageous newspapers (so much so that the government locked up their manager and editor-in-chief in 2004), has a series of articles (article #1 | #2 | #3) covering the Foxconn suicides (links in Chinese). After the incidents in April, a 23 year old Southern Weekend intern, Liu Zhiyi, went undercover to work at Foxconn for28 days and wrote up his thoughts (most full-time journalists at Southern Weekend were too old to be hired by Foxconn, while Liu was a suitable candidate). In his own words, “the 28 days of working undercover has shocked me strongly. While I didn’t uncover the truth behind why these employees chose death, I did come to understand how they were living.”
Liu’s account of life at Foxconn was incredibly depressing. 300,000 employees worked and lived on a 2 square kilometer patch of land, crammed with assembly lines and dormitories. Ten workers shared a dorm. Employees earned a starting wage of RMB900 per month (US$132), which was the legal minimum wage in Shenzhen; to earn more they needed to work over-time. Foxconn had workers sign documents stating that they were working over-time voluntarily, in which case the employees could circumvent the government regulation of 36 hours maximum of over-time per month. Liu believed that most employees favored this setup – they saw the companies that allowed them to work the most (and therefore earn the most) as the best employers.
Life outside of work was incredibly dull. The blue-collars, which came from all over China, seemed to struggle at forming real connections. Workers routinely could not remember all the names of the other dorm mates they lived with, which came and went quite frequently. The gender ratio meant that even for a talented star employee, such as Lu Xin (who died on May 6), who had won 2nd prize at a Foxconn internal talent show, relationships were a luxury. In its place were the cheap prostitutes a few blocks away, who offered blue collar prices (RMB90 per session – US$13) to these young twenty year olds. Employees also loved spending their pay on lottery tickets.
To be fair, Foxconn has taken some measures to stop the suicides. A counseling hotline was set up; a RMB200 (US$30) cash reward was given out to employees who reported co-workers who were having stress issues. Besides getting monks to perform a service in memory of the dead, Foxconn chairman Terry Gou had also invited top psychiatrists to come to Shenzhen. However, none of these measures were enough to stop the momentum of the suicides.
- NOTE: Some of these psychiatrists went on the record to state to media that the suicide rate at Foxconn is not above national average – however, I see that as a misleading statement since it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison – the national average suicide rate is in no way a measure of the national average suicide rate of physically healthy blue-collar workers, which would be the real benchmark.
So what are the root causes of these deaths? Why did so many young people see no hope in life? Some say it is the tragedy of the second generation migrant workers (the first generation migrant workers were those who went from rural areas into the cities in the 80s and 90s), who are the victims of explicit policies aimed at suppressing rural income and raising urban income. These migrant workers, compared to their fathers’ generation who successfully made a living by leaving farming and going into the cities, earned far less in real terms, and having lost their farm land, could not turn back.
Others say it is the tragedy of the over-expansion of college education, which began in the late 90s and was widely seen as a measure to delay the employment problem of young adults. As a result, China currently produces an over-supply of college graduates ill-equiped with skills needed by society. And of course there is the corruption, social injustice, lack of social welfare etc.
In the end, perhaps there is no single cause to account for why these deaths happened. Maybe Foxconn’s relentless drive for economies of scale was the straw that broke the camel’s back – 300,000 employees crammed in a 2 square km production complex (3 times the population density of the most dense city in the world, Manila, which makes the figure almost impossible to believe) was mentally too much for these young people to bear. By now I can only hope that this chain of suicides ends here.