Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Light and death

Suicides at Foxconn | A series of deaths expose a big computer-maker to unaccustomed scrutiny

May 27th 2010 | Hong Kong | The Economist

APPLE was expecting lots of publicity ahead of the international release of the iPad£ its latest gadget£ on May 28th—but not the sort it received in Hong Kong this week£ which included the ritual burning of pictures of iPhones and calls for a global boycott$ The protests were triggered by a series of suicides of employees of Foxconn£ a subsidiary of TaiwanCHFs Hon Hai Precision Industry Company£ the worldCHFs largest €contract manufacturer€$ It makes products for Apple and£ according to reports£ most other electronics heavyweights£ among them Dell£ HP£ Nintendo and Sony$

Foxconn employs about 800£000 people£ roughly half of whom work and live in Shenzhen£ just across the border from Hong Kong$ The firm operates a huge industrial park there£ which it calls Foxconn City£ with 15 multi-storey manufacturing buildings£ each dedicated to one customer$ This is where the suicides took place$ Two other employees at the facility have been severely injured in recent suicide attempts; the company says it has averted a further 20$

The toll¥ a dozen this year¥ is lower than the suicide rate among the general population in China$ But the deaths have raised questions about working conditions in electronics manufacturing in general and in particular at Foxconn£ which keeps its customers secret£ rarely opens its plants to outsiders and routinely ignores press inquiries$

Conditions at the firm are actually not that bad compared with many others£ says Boy Lüthje of the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt$ It pays new hires in Shenzhen the minimum wage of 900 yuan ¥$130¥ a month$ Food and lodging are free£ as are extensive recreational facilities$ But workers routinely put in overtime in excess of the 36 hours a month permitted under Chinese law£ says Mr Lüthje$ Annual turnover is 30-40%£ but a constant stream of young migrant workers replaces those who move on$

In response to the suicides£ the company is said to have surrounded buildings with nets£ hired counsellors£ brought in Buddhist monks to pray and toyed with asking employees to sign a €no suicide€ pledge$ On an impromptu visit to Shenzhen£ Hon HaiCHFs chief executive£ Terry Guo£ insisted that he was not running a €sweatshop€$

The Chinese press used to laud Foxconn for creating jobs£ but the firm has become an object of criticism and undercover investigations$ Clients including Apple£ Dell and HP have announced inquiries£ doubtless fearing bad press of their own$ A firm and an industry that had become accustomed to obscurity will have to get used to the limelight$

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