May 27, 2010 | 17:48 GMT

12 mins read

China Security Memo: May 27, 2010

Suicides at Foxconn

The number of suicides at Foxconn's manufacturing center in Shenzhen continues to grow as another employee attempted suicide May 27, the 13th such attempt by Foxconn workers this year (of the 13, two appear to have occurred at another factory in Hebei, but details remain unclear). Three of the attempts, including the latest, were not successful. The suicides, which have mostly been concentrated in the month of May, and the resulting media spotlight on the Taiwanese electronics company have prompted an official investigation. Foxconn's Shenzhen factory makes computers, game consoles and mobile phones for companies such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Nokia. The location has 420,000 employees (of a total of 800,000 Foxconn employees in China) and, like other manufacturing centers in the country, the Shenzhen facility furnishes them housing and dining facilities. The employees spend most of their time inside the complex, which has led many to wonder if the company's management is in part to blame for the high number of self-inflicted deaths. Like many manufacturers in China, Foxconn is strict with its employees, requiring them to work long shifts with low pay and few breaks. Foxconn is a popular supplier for foreign companies in part because of its tight security protocols in a country where intellectual property infringement is rife. Despite these conditions, Foxconn is a popular employer in China, and according to one job-hunter interviewed in the Chinese media, Foxconn jobs are desirable because the company pays overtime (many foreign as well as domestic companies in China do not). Since the suicides began, the company has limited the amount of overtime that its employees can work, but most workers in China want to work more hours than Chinese labor laws allow so they can send the extra money home. In 2006, Foxconn admitted to violating labor laws in its Shenzhen facility. Manufacturing facilities throughout China are notorious for stretching labor laws, which they have been able to do because of the glut of migrant workers in recent years and the control companies can exercise over their daily lives. This glut is now changing to a dearth, which is forcing companies to be more accountable to their employees. Although Foxconn is far from being the only offender in China, Taiwan- and Hong Kong-based manufacturers are known for being particularly harsh with their factory employees. Add to this the monotony of factory life, and a high suicide rate in such an environment is conceivable. One must also factor in the relatively high rate of suicide throughout Chinese society as a whole. The World Health Organization says the overall suicide rate in China is 15 per 100,000 people, while other reports indicate the rate is more like 20 to 30 per 100,000. Given the size of Foxconn's workforce in China, its suicide rate — two or three per 100,000 workers, according to Chinese media reports — is about the same as the suicide rate among Chinese college students. And there is some indication that the Foxconn suicides are "copycat" suicides. It is not uncommon in China for people to commit suicide in order to get maximum media exposure and thereby highlight their grievances and get the attention of authorities. With the media spotlight on Foxconn, previously publicized suicides may be a factor in spurring the trend. Of course, it is also possible that workplace abuse is a factor. The media focus on Foxconn began in 2009, when a Shenzhen worker committed suicide after being interrogated by security personnel over a missing iPhone prototype, fueling rumors of mistreatment at the facility. Still, there is no evidence to suggest that abuse at Foxconn's Shenzhen factory is greater than it is at any other similar facility in China. On May 26, Chinese media reported that the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau (PSB), Labor Security Department, Health Department and Labor Union Department have established a working group to look into Foxconn's corporate culture. The Shenzhen PSB also has dispatched 300 security guards to support Foxconn's management, the Health Department has sent a group of psychologists to the factory and the Labor Security Department is reviewing employee contracts, wages and overtime. Foxconn's CEO also has announced internal measures, including the installation of safety nets around dormitories, dividing employees into groups of 50 to encourage communication and cohort support, and psychological tests for all new employees (most of the deaths have been among workers who were relatively new to the company). Finally, the company has said it will compensate the families of the suicide victims, and that each of the families would receive 300,000 yuan (approximately $44,000). While these measures may help decrease the suicide rate at the Shenzhen factory, the family compensation may actually hinder Foxconn's attempts to remedy the problem. Many workers are under immense pressure to send money home, and they may view suicide as a way to ensure that their families are taken care of. In a monotonous work environment with little upward mobility, few social connections and pressure to earn as much extra money as possible, the promise of 300,000 yuan and guaranteed media attention may be incentive enough for some workers to kill themselves. One Sichuan worker interviewed by the Chinese media said he earned an average of 1,800 yuan a month (about $265, roughly twice Guangdong province's minimum wage) after working 100 hours overtime and lived on less than 500 yuan (approximately $73) after sending most of the money to his family. The concentration of suicides at Foxconn's Shenzhen factory highlights a stressful work environment, but it does not yet suggest a statistical aberration. Still, Taiwanese companies are known for their harsh working environments, so just as the publicity fuels the suicides, the suicides fuel the publicity, which many mainland Chinese are happy to exploit to illustrate a problem that has been well known but unreported for years. (click here to view interactive graphic)

May 20

  • A former Public Security Bureau (PSB) chief and 19 others were sentenced for gang-related crimes in Handan, Hebei province, on May 19, Chinese media reported. The PSB official was convicted of organizing a criminal gang in 2004 that stole materials from the Handan Steel Group worth more than $4.6 million yuan (about $670,000). He accepted bribes, created fraudulent invoices and abused power to protect the gang. The PSB official was sentenced to death while the gang leader was sentenced to life in prison and others received varying jail terms.
  • A man died while being questioned at a police station near Jingzhou, Hubei province, on May 18, Chinese media reported. The 69-year-old turned himself in for attacking his wife with a knife during an argument. Police said he had a heart attack.
  • Twenty-six people in Jingzhou, Hubei province, were sent to the hospital for treatment after a methochloride leak at a chemical plant on May 16, Chinese media reported. The plant said the leak started at 3 p.m. that day and was caused by "worker misconduct." Several people near the plant were admitted to the hospital for a similar poisoning in April.
  • On May 18, more than 200 workers from the Hubei Taizi Milk Biology company, based in Huanggang, blockaded a major bridge over the Yangtze River between Huanggang and Echeng in Hubei province for fear of losing their jobs, Chinese media reported. Equipment had been moved from the company's Huanggang facility and managers had left without notifying the employees.
  • Police in Futian, Guangdong province, investigated an explosion May 18 at a local courthouse, Chinese media reported. Witnesses reported a loud bang and found that a flower pot by an entry gate was damaged. No injuries were reported.
  • Some 200 people raided a hospital May 12 in Loudi, Hunan province, to protest the death of a woman giving birth, Chinese media reported. They blocked the hospital's gates and proceeded to destroy equipment in the obstetrics, gynecology and maternity ward. The next day they prevented doctors from seeing patients and set off firecrackers in the hospital. The county government paid the protesters 200,000 yuan (about $29,000) to cease and desist, after they had caused 600,000 yuan (about $88,000) in damages.
  • Chinese media in Lhasa and The New York Times reported that Tibet was considering a new regulation requiring photocopy shops to have a special permit and collect information on what their customers are having copied. If instituted, the law could be a way to monitor the production of dissident material in the ethnic autonomous region.
  • A college professor in Nanjing was convicted and sentenced to three and a half years in jail for "group licentiousness." The professor organized a swinger's club online and held private sex parties. The man was arrested in 2009 along with 21 others who received lighter sentences.
  • A court in Beijing sentenced a former Ministry of Commerce inspector to death for bribery. Guo Jingyi had been convicted of accepting 8.45 million yuan (about $1.24 million) in bribes, including 1.1 million (about $160,000) he received from GOME in 2004.

May 21

  • Shangahi police announced that they would be cracking down on ticket scalpers during the World Expo. Tour companies (or people portraying themselves as tour operators) are given a preference when the limited number of free group-reservation tickets are handed out, and some have been selling them for substantial profits.
  • The Haikou Public Security Bureau in Hainan province announced that it arrested four suspects May 19 who confessed to having been involved in the stabbing of vocational school students earlier the same day, Chinese media reported. Police are searching for other suspects.
  • University teachers in Wuhan, Hubei province, convinced a student not to carry out an online threat to kill "innocent people." In an online post, the student wrote that he was angry for not being able to help his father, who is receiving medical care after being injured in a construction accident. China has been on heightened alert after a series of school stabbings.
  • At least 70 men broke into a Beijing brick plant at 3 a.m., cut off the electricity, beat workers on duty and caused major damages to the facility. A city official was arrested for involvement in the crime after it was revealed that the municipal government was trying to acquire the land.
  • Kunming airport police in Yunnan province noticed a suspicious foreigner of unknown nationality boarding a flight for Bangladesh. He was arrested for illegally exporting 307 falsely labeled Nokia cell phones. Later the same day, police intercepted another man with 243 counterfeit cell phones heading for the same destination.

May 24

  • A former deputy director of a county-level PSB was sentenced to death for corruption in Jinzhong, Shanxi province. Beginning in 1999, he accepted bribes worth 16.4 million yuan (about $2.40 million) and helped a coal mining company buy explosives illegally.
  • The Urumqi PSB announced it had established a new counterterrorism unit in Xinjiang called the "Flying Tigers." Its members are trained especially for hostage situations and firearm or explosive attacks.
  • Beijing police announced a crackdown on vice in the city and said 111 suspects have already been arrested and 33 entertainment venues shut down. Authorities are calling it the "three crackdowns" — on prostitution, gambling and drugs. The initiative is aimed in part at sports betting over the World Cup, which will begin June 11 in South Africa.

May 25

  • A group of some 50 men beat one man to death and seriously injured another during a forced demolition May 14 near Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, Chinese media reported. The group was hired by a real estate developer to force two brothers from their house. According to police, each of the attackers was paid 300 yuan (about $44).
  • Four private detectives in Dalian, Liaoning province, received sentences ranging from 13 to 18 months in jail for using "illegal technology" in their investigations. They were able to identify the locations of mobile phone users with the help of a telecom company employee.

May 26

  • Guo Hong'an, a former county official in Xianyang, Shaanxi province, was sentenced to death for blackmail and the murder of a mine owner. After the mine owner rejected him from a business deal, Guo directed the county secretary general to make the owner's company pay 40.5 million yuan (about $5.93 million) in compensation. Guo paid the secretary general 2 million yuan (about $293,000) in return. However, Guo remained unhappy about the failed deal and paid two men to murder the mine owner in June 2008.

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