Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dying young: making gadgets for Apple, Motorola, HP, Dell, Nokia

Suicide can be viewed as the tip of an iceberg, an indicator of the quality of life and of broader problems, according to the OECD Factbook. By that standard, a huge factory in southern China may be the epicenter of broader human problems yet to be exposed.

In the five months before May 25, nine workers – all between 18 and 25 – committed suicide at the Shenzen plant of a Taiwan-owned multinational, Foxconn Technology Inc., a leading supplier of electronic goods with leading brand names.

But even before this May, Foxconn was the scene of repeated tragedy. On June 18, 2007, a 19-year old Hunan worker, was found hung to death in the toilet of her dormitory room. On January 16, 2009, a 25-year old worker jumped to his death from a 14th floor window. On July 16, 2009, a 25-year-old office worker, accused of losing one of 16 prototypes of Apple’s fourth generation iPhone, jumped to death from the 12th floor of his apartment building.

That list of Foxconn’s death toll is from “Dying Young: Suicide & China’s booming economy,” published May 25 by a Hong Kong-based NGO, Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), founded in 2005. From conversations outside Foxconn’s walls, the group found that most of the interviewed workers described the stress of work with examples like these:

-- They were not allowed to talk with others on the same production line, and so did not get to know their colleagues
-- Isolation from each other often extends even to those in the same dormitory, partly because of excessive overtime.
-- Even with overtime exceeding 100 hours a month, they could not afford to buy the products they make.
On the morning of May 25, representatives of SACOM and other NGOs staged a protest outside Foxconn’s headquarters in Hong Kong to express concerns over the suicides and to demand reforms, including payment of a living wage and permitting establishment of genuine worker organizations the factory.

Terry Guo, founder and chairman of Hon Hai, Foxconn’s parent company, rushed to Shenzen for a press conference on May 25. He urged the media not to misrepresent the situation at the factory.

“We are definitely not a sweatshop,” he insisted.

Maybe not in some legal definitions of the term. But it is a sweatshop in the sense experienced by Mr. Guo’s workers (and many millions of other working women and men around the world): a workplace that sweats the utmost out of its workers while giving them the very least in return, monetarily and otherwise. (GlobalPost has called them “silicon sweatshops.”)

SACOM’s Website documents that fact for Foxconn at An abbreviated version of “Dying Young” is available there, and contains the link to the full report, which runs 11 pages, including endnotes.

Foxconn is a member of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), whose members pledge to uphold high labor and social standards.

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