warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Rash Of Suicides At China Computer Factory Raises Concerns About Human Rights

Katie Cooper |
August 5, 2010 | 12:34 a.m. PDT


Creative Commons
Creative Commons
Eleven workers have committed suicide at an electronics manufacturing factory in China since February, prompting calls by human rights organizations to improve labor conditions.

Since the high number of suicides at Foxconn became an international story, the company has been pressured by the media, human rights organizations and its customers to improve working conditions. Many observers say that the suicides are directly related to poor conditions at the factory.

The assembly-line style factory runs like a military regimen—tight restrictions give Foxconn virtually complete control over workers’ lives. Bathroom breaks are timed, most workers must stand during their entire work shift, there are only three options for meals, and workers aren’t allowed to talk to one another during shifts. When the high production quotas are not met, workers must work overtime without pay. During fast turnaround periods for important orders, Foxconn sometimes requires its employees to work full 24-hour shifts.

Foxconn factory workers were paid minimum wage, a monthly $132 equivalent, at the beginning of the year. Wages have been raised by nearly 30 percent, but monthly salaries remain low considering their long hours—they work 12 to 18 hours a day. Foxconn even disregards the Chinese law of a maximum of 36 hours in overtime per month, and some workers receive double that amount, if not more.

“Foxconn has a team of 500 people who analyze each action a worker makes,” Luo Jar Der, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and an authority on China’s manufacturing model, told the New York Times. “They want to find the most efficient actions of a worker.”

Foxconn is a leader in electronics manufacturing and supplies to major brands such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Foxconn’s success is due largely to their precision manufacturing, which is fostered by the little freedom they give their workers. By threatening overtime without pay, Foxconn ensures total efficiency, but only at the expense of the workers’ comfort.

A video broadcast on China Central Television contained details of some of the suicides and interviews with family members.

Besides raising wages, Foxconn plans to relinquish the management of on-site employee dormitories to outside real estate firms. Other measures taken in response to the recent suicides include bringing in psychologists to help workers cope and installing safety nets around buildings to catch anyone jumping off buildings.

In response to the alleged human rights violations by Apple’s supplier, Apple CEO Steve Jobs defended Foxconn, saying that the suicide rate is lower at Foxconn than other Chinese factories. Apple has yet to issue any corrective plan, or expressed a need for one.

“Jobs' statement is no more than complicity with Foxconn's degradation of workers and treatment of them as if they were machines," Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a nonprofit human rights organization in Hong Kong, released in a statement.

Several human rights activist organizations hoped that the Foxconn scandal would shed light on all abusive Chinese factories and their conditions. However, the power of efficiency and cheap labor that the system in China wields to companies allows them to be the powerhouse manufacturers they are. While most would like to see Chinese factories move away from these cheap-labor development models that “sacrifice basic human dignity,” improving conditions for factory workers would cost money, and prices of electronics would increase.

Pietra Rivoli, a professor of international business at Georgetown University, said that she would be surprised if Chinese companies ever relinquished control over their workers, because despite poor labor conditions, “it is the command and control model that has been very effective for China.”

To reach Katie Cooper, click here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.