CNN: Inside China factory hit by suicides
USA Today: China suicides raise workers' rights issues
Daily Mail: Something rotten at Apple's core? Shocking toll of suicides at iPad factory in China revealed
Young workers move quickly from modern, clean dormitories to huge mess halls and then to their jobs on the assembly lines, making everything from Apple's iPad and iPhone, to Dell computers, and products for Hewlett Packard and Sony.
More than 300,000 people sleep, eat and work here. There are three hospitals, a fire station, supermarkets and restaurants all crammed on less than a square mile (2.3 square kilometers.)
But something here is not right -- an alarming number of workers have taken their lives or attempted suicide. So far this year, 10 people have committed suicide, while three others have tried, according to Foxconn, a Taiwanese firm and local authorities, and no one knows why.
"We're asking ourselves the same question," said company spokesman, Liu Kun. "Foxconn has never seen anything like this before in the past 20 years of operating on the mainland. We've checked the work records and couldn't find any direct link between the working conditions and the suicides."
While the number of suicides is below China's average rate of 14 per 100,000, according to the World Health Organization, it is enough to worry some of Foxconn's customers. Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard and Sony have all ordered their own investigations.
When CNN contacted Apple, a company spokesperson directed us to their Web site and a statement on supplier responsibility which reads in part: "We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect ." HP, Dell and Sony have issued similar statements.
Foxconn, which maintains its workers are treated well, is also worried. Company Chairman Terry Gou made an unprecedented public apology for the string of tragedies. In recent months, the company has brought in more counselors, started a 24-hour phone counseling service and opened a stress room where workers can take out frustration on mannequins with bats.
All of this has prevented more than 30 suicides in the past month, Foxconn spokesman Liu said.
"Most cases are caused by emotional affairs, personal reasons or poverty of the family. Some people feel depressed because their directors have criticized them," he said.
Critics say the problems could be due to the pressures many of China's migrant workers face. They are young people from the country who have never been away from home, working long hours, and feeling alone and vulnerable.
"They wake up, they have breakfast, they go to work, they work a solid shift, they come back to their dormitories and they sleep ... it's a very dehumanizing place, and the workers are little more than machines there," said Geoffrey Crothall of the China Labor Bulletin, a non-profit group that tries to protect workers' rights across China.
Despite all of the questions about what's happening inside Foxconn, outside there is no shortage of young people lining up and hoping for a job that pays around $300 a month. Foxconn is also promising to raise wages by about 20 percent; relatively good pay compared to other factories.
Liu admits there are problems, such as not having enough recreational facilities on campus (five swimming pools and 400 computers) for its staff of more than 300,000. There also have been complaints that assembly line managers have been abusive toward staff if they miss deadlines or make mistakes.
"It's forbidden for managers to scold workers but some of our managers do not meet the standards. They're insensitive to the workers' feelings," Liu said. "It's crucial that we improve our management style and establish a supporting system for all our employees."
The suicides — 10 Foxconn Technology's employees have died this year and three others have been injured — have raised questions about whether the working conditions of factory employees along China's Pearl River Delta have something to do with the deaths.
Workers' rights groups say that low pay and grueling work at Foxconn factories have a role in the suicides. They say similar problems at factories elsewhere in the region highlight the need to reform labor practices throughout China.
"Since 2005 to now, we have recorded hundreds of suicides and attempted suicides by workers who have not been paid," says Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for China Labor Bulletin, a group that fights for workers' rights in China. "This is quite common" among migrant laborers who move from rural areas to the cities seeking work, he says.
Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, is one of the largest makers of electronic components for companies including Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard. Foxconn spokesman Edmund Ding says the company is looking into whether "work-related causes played any role in these tragedies."
Initial results show, though, that "there is no single cause" for the suicides, Ding says. Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard say they're also investigating the situation to determine what to do next.
Worker suicides have plagued Shenzhen telecom company Huawei Technologies in recent years as well. And an employee of Genda Electronics, based in Shenzhen, committed suicide in April after he was suspected of stealing a box of electronics parts, the local Guangzhou Daily newspaper reported.
Low wages and overtime
In China, labor laws that took effect in 2008 have greatly improved migrant workers' rights. And although "you don't hear about the robber-baron type of abuses that you heard about 30 years ago," it's still common for factories to offer such low wages that workers are forced to work overtime, says Phelim Kine, Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
China's economic boom has improved living standards for migrant workers and their families, but it has also widened the gap between the rich and the poor, exacerbating social tensions.
"All the indicators are that the level of dissatisfaction among (factory) workers has been quite intense for a while, and it's probably getting worse," Crothall says.
Critics say the suicides show that despite improvements in working conditions — including higher wages at many factories in the region because of a labor shortage — much remains to be done to assure that workers are treated fairly.
China Labor Watch, a New York-based advocacy group that has conducted dozens of interviews with Foxconn workers, says it has found that employees have to produce as many as 4,000 computers each shift.
To ease workers' stress, Foxconn should lower the production quota and only allow them to work five days a week instead of six, says Quang Li, executive director of China Labor Watch.
Ding, the Foxconn spokesman, says the company is doing "everything possible to prevent tragedies such as this from being repeated." The company is providing counseling to employees and planning to raise certain workers' wages, a measure it began looking at earlier this year amid the region's labor shortage.
Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says that while long hours, military-style management techniques and a weak union are common features of factories in the delta, they're "hardly direct causes of the suicide cluster" at Foxconn.
'Demands are tough'
Outside Foxconn's Shenzhen factories, workers who would only give their last names for fear of being reprimanded by the company or by the Chinese government said working conditions are hard.
One worker who gave both her names, 21-year-old Amity Ding, says she couldn't handle the demands of working on Foxconn's product line because employees weren't allowed to rest until they met their quota. So she asked her supervisor to move her to another division. She now takes inventory in the warehouse; it's a job, she says, that is not as stressful.
Ding says the suicides have made some people feel their sadness has turned to numbness.
"Some people don't feel like working in there because of the suicides," she says.
Contributing: Winnie Cheung
By RICHARD JONES in Shenzhen
29th May 2010As the iPad is launched in Britain, a special investigation now reveals the full shocking toll of suicides at its Chinese factory
A once pretty 17-year-old lies crippled in a hospital bed two miles from the factory where she worked long, tedious hours checking the screens of Apple iPads for tiny flaws. Her parents brood silently at her bedside.
At 8am one morning in March - just 40 days after she began her first job at Apple's main supplier, Foxconn, in southern China - Tian Yu took the decision to leap from her fourth-floor dormitory rather than take her place on the production line.
Tian survived but must wonder if she would not have been better off dead.
After two weeks in a coma, she woke to find herself paralysed from the waist down, unable to sit up by herself and suffering from fractures and liver and spleen damage.
She has been tortured by the slow realisation that she will soon be pathetically dependent on the very parents - poor farmers from rural China - she came to the city hoping to support.
For now, Foxconn, which employs 400,000 young people at the huge factory sprawl where Apple's worldbeating electronics are made, pays Tian's medical bills but her long-term future is uncertain.
'We've been told to say nothing,' her parents mutter apologetically. 'If we speak to you, Foxconn will stop paying her medical expenses.'
Nor are Tian and her family alone in their agony. It is an anguish shared by 11 other families of workers who since January have all tried to kill themselves by jumping from factory buildings.
Ten have succeeded. A 23-year-old man jumped to his death last Wednesday night.
Clearly, it must raise the question of whether something is rotten at Apple's manufacturing core.
These tragedies are in stark contrast to the more familiar Apple success story.
When the iPad went on sale in America last month, sales exceeded all expectations, reaching one million units in 28 days - twice as fast as the iPhone and forcing Apple to delay the UK launch.
In the first three months of 2010, Apple sold nearly three million computers, 11 million iPods and nine million iPhones. It made £2billion ($2.89 billion) profit in the first quarter this year and is expected to take £41billion ($60billion) in sales.Apple's Taiwanese subcontractor Foxconn is operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to try to keep up with orders. But can that pressure alone account for the suicides?
Some blame the harsh working conditions imposed by Foxconn for the deaths - conditions first exposed four years ago by a Mail on Sunday article which prompted an investigation by Apple.
The company found there were 'a number of areas for improvement'.
Some blame a kind of mass hysteria spreading among the mostly young workers.
Others accuse modern China's spiritual void. And it has been pointed out that in communist China, suicide is considered a crime against the state, so it is the ultimate form of protest.
The deaths have become so regular that bloggers have nicknamed the factories in the city of Shenzhen the Foxconn Suicide Express, while managers have set up a suicide hotline and even hired monks to exorcise evil spirits.
The family of 18-year-old Ma Diangqian, who joined Foxconn last November and fell to his death from his dormitory on January 23, have no patience for the talk of evil spirits, hysteria or spiritual voids.
They say they saw a bright young man humiliated by Foxconn's notoriously tough regime within just two months of following his sister, Ma Liqun, to work in one of the two citysize Shenzhen factory complexes.
In the weeks leading up to his death, he confided in Ma Liqun that he had faced repeated criticism after breaking two drill parts. He was taken off the production line and put on lavatory-cleaning duty.
'He was very upset,' says Ma Liqun. 'He told me that cleaning lavatories gave him no dignity and made him lose face. Sometimes he was given no gloves but he had to clean the lavatories all the same.'
His father Ma Zishan, 58, says tearfully: 'He called me in January. I could tell he was lonely and unhappy. I told him to stick it out until Chinese New Year when he would have come home.'
Instead, weeks before the holiday, he was found dead at the foot of his dormitory block. His sister was told he had fainted and was in hospital. In fact, his body was already lying in the police station morgue. The family were initially told he was a victim of 'sudden death'. Only when they demanded a post-mortem examination were they told the cause of death was 'falling from a great height'.
'He was my only son,' says Ma Zishan. 'I have lost everything.'
The Orwellian control that Foxconn's army of security guards, backed by local police, exercise over the lives of the young people living in the factory plants in Shenzhen's Longhua and Guanlan districts adds to the sense of intrigue surrounding the deaths.
Both of the heavily guarded plants comprise several bunker-like, six-storey factory blocks that are protected by several layers of electronic security, through which workers flow continually night and day.
In the towns outside the factory complexes that contain the dormitory blocks, teams of Foxconn security guards patrol on motorbikes and on foot, armed with 3ft-long batons. A restaurant owner in Guanlan, who asks not to be named, describes the operation that swung into operation within minutes of an 18-year-old female worker jumping from a dormitory block beside his restaurant on April 7.
Grief: A member of a Taiwan labour group holds a slogan reading, 'Mourning the Suicide Deaths of Foxconn Workers,' in a protest outside the Taiwanese parent company of Foxconn
'There was no scream, but I heard her body hit the ground,' he says.
'There was a lot of blood. Security officers arrived at the scene in a matter of minutes and covered her with a yellow plastic sheet. Before long, more than 100 security guards and police officers were swarming through the area. All the shopkeepers were told to go inside and the factory girls were told to go back inside their dormitories.'
Within ten minutes the body was loaded into a van and the blood scrubbed from the pavement.
'The police told us not to say a word about what we saw.' The girl, whose name has not been made public, is understood to have been a migrant worker from China's Yunnan province who was working on an iPhone production line. She was the sixth 'jumper'.
With security guards constantly watching them, workers - most of whom earn a basic salary equivalent to £2.90 a day - would talk to us only when they were able to meet us at discreet locations away from the Guanlan and Longhua plants.
Those who did spoke of a harsh factory regime, characterised by monotony, intimidation and stress, and beginning with a period of military-style training known in Mandarin as 'jun-xun' for new recruits.
One 20-year-old male worker recalls: 'I was made to stand to attention like a soldier without moving for ten minutes, 20 minutes and 30 minutes at a time. We lived in dormitories inside the factory blocks when we were undergoing training.
'There were 45 people in my dorm and we slept in three rows of triple-layer bunk beds. The dormitories stink and they're full of ants and cockroaches.'
A 19-year-old, whose job is to polish Apple iBooks, says: 'We're told that the drilling builds discipline. We need discipline because Apple products are expensive and there is no margin for mistakes.'
Ma Liqun, who left Foxconn the day she learned of her brother's death, worked at the Guanlun campus. She recalls how she had to be at her work station at 7.35am every day to start work at 8am.
Bloggers have nicknamed the factories in the city of Shenzhen the Foxconn Suicide Express, while managers have set up a suicide hotline and even hired monks to exorcise evil spirits
'If you were late for the head count, you'd be made to stand still in front of the other workers as a punishment for however long you were late by. If you were caught talking during work hours, you would lose points, which would affect your salary.'
She said points would also be deducted for chewing, an untidy work station and for yawning.
A female worker at the Longhua plant says their ten-minute afternoon breaks were cancelled at peak production times and they were made to do 'voluntary overtime' if they failed to meet quotas. Even the line managers feel the strain. One with responsibility for 15 production lines at the Guanlan plant admits there was 'constant pressure' on all workers.
'We must meet our quota every day at the maximum quality,' he says. 'I'm going to leave when my contract expires and look for work somewhere less pressured.'
For Foxconn, a Fortune 500 giant that had a turnover of £42.2 billion ($62 billion) in 2008 and claims to be the largest exporter in Greater China, the pressure pays off. It boasts of its 'unique Foxconnian culture' and its ability to offer the ' lowest total cost solution' to its clients.
It is one of the biggest success stories in global electronics manufacturing, making most of Apple's computers, iPods, iPhones and iPads as well as items for other leading brands including Sony and IBM.
A banner on the wall of one of its Shenzhen factories sums up the tireless ethic that has made Foxconn a global success: 'Value efficiency - every minute, every second.'
The need for secrecy is also drummed into Foxconn and its employees, especially regarding its dealings with Apple. Last July a Shenzhen Foxconn worker, Sun Danyong, 25, jumped to his death after an iPhone prototype went missing. He was reportedly beaten by security guards who suspected he had passed it on to rivals. Sun's parents' silence was bought with £29,000.
Last Tuesday a 19-year-old worker from central China, who had joined Foxconn a month earlier, leapt to his death in Shenzhen. Four days earlier Nan Gang, 21, fell from the roof of a workshop, exactly a week after fellow worker Liang on May 14.
The previous week there were two more suicides, a male and female, both aged 24. There may have been other non-jumping suicides that have gone unreported.
Foxconn is shaken by the events. Uncharacteristically, chairman Terry Gou issued a statement last week insisting: 'We're not running blood and sweat factories... It's not easy to manage such a large team.'
As well as setting up a suicide hotline and asking monks to bless the factories, it has been reported that the company plans to hire 2,000 psychiatrists and counsellors. Foxconn has also put up fencing to try to stop workers jumping from dormitory blocks. But few people believe the harsh working environment alone can explain the suicides. After all, people are free to leave their jobs.
Some experts point out that ten suicides and two attempted suicides in a population of 400,000 is within national averages. But suicides are usually more common among the sick, jobless and elderly, not young, healthy wage earners.
Psychologists suggest that a form of mass hysteria may have spread, inspiring copycat suicides in impressionable young people. Others have argued that China's new generation of young people are too 'pampered' to cope once they leave the home.
An estimated 80 per cent of workers were born in the Eighties or Nineties, and one commentator says: 'This generation's resilience and ability to endure hardship is weaker. Their self-esteem is more fragile. They have more dreams and they feel pressure more. They are not like the previous generation of migrant workers who were known for their toughness and patience.'
Dr Daniel Wong from the department of Social Work and Social Administration at Hong Kong University found that more than 30 per cent of young migrant workers suffered from poor mental health. 'High on the list of grievances, leading to high stress levels, was bullying by management and inadequate rest due to overtime,' he says.
But Debby Chan of pressure group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour describes the suicides as 'alarming'.
'Big brand names such as Apple make massive profits and they should be responsible for ensuring that their code of conduct is adhered to and the dignity and health of workers is taken into account,' she says. 'Their code should be higher than the minimum legal standard in China.'
Geoffrey Crothall, of China Labour Bulletin, says: 'The Foxconn style of work is quite severe. It has a reputation for being strict and putting pressure on employees... if Apple are serious about the health and safety of workers they need to address this issue.'
An irony of the artificial community of 400,000 that the demand for iPhones, iPads and Apple computers has helped to create at Foxconn is that, despite its scale, it can still be an overwhelmingly lonely place.
Migrant workers from all over China are thrown together and, although they share dormitories and factory floors, they are banned from speaking throughout the working day and are often too exhausted at the end of it to socialise.
An undercover Chinese reporter who spent a month working at Foxconn said most workers complained that despite its size, the factory sprawl had no parks, no cinemas and nowhere for young people to relax or go on dates.
One 23-year-old worker told us as she trudged back to her dormitory at 9pm: 'When you come here after living at home, it makes you realise how tough life is.'
That isolation and joylessness may have been factors in Tian Yu's decision to try to take her life.
In her 40 days at the factory, removing dust from the surface of iPads, Tian Yu found no time to make friends. And in the week since she emerged from her coma, not a single one of her former factory colleagues has visited her in hospital.
For now, all she has to occupy her days are her parents and visits from factory officials to ensure her continuing silence.
When asked for its reaction to the suicides, Apple said: 'We are saddened and upset by the recent suicides at Foxconn. Apple is deeply committed to ensuring that conditions throughout our supply chain are safe and workers are treated with respect and dignity. We are in direct contact with Foxconn senior management and we believe they are taking this matter very seriously.'
Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard - who also use the Foxconn factories - said last week that they would investigate working conditions
Despite repeated requests for a response from Foxconn, the company did not return our calls.
Some names have been changed to protect identities. Additional reporting by Simon Parry.