May 31st, 2010

Behind the Spate of Chinese Worker Suicides-Update


UPDATED June 7

The Foxconn factory in the southern China city of Shenzhen that manufactures our prized gadgets — iPhones, iPads, Dell, and HP products — is actually a self-contained city of 420,000 workers. In this crazy globalized world, American electronic gizmos are made by a subsidiary (Foxconn) of the Taiwanese firm (Hon Hai precision) that exploits low-wage mainland Chinese labor.

Thirteen Foxconn workers attempted suicide in the last year. Ten succeeded. All young people in their 20’s. There are a couple of stories behind the story that could teach American employers some lessons.

Wages begin at $130 per month, $300 per month with 120 hours overtime and everyone wants the more respectable pay. The jobs are so popular, 8,000 people apply every day to work there. All employers control working conditions. Foxconn, however, in the buyer’s market, doesn’t seem to worry about workers’ needs. Individuals are dispensable since replacements stand visibly by, waiting.

Alienation despite crowding

The typical American workplace analyst, coming from either an HR or corporate defense lawyer perspective, would speculate about personality weaknesses in the young despondent workers as the primary reason for the suicides. I call it misdirection.

Terry Gou, chairman of Hon Hai, reportedly said that managing 800,000 workers is very difficult. He is clueless about why so many of his workers commit suicide. On the surface, Foxconn is a good Chinese employer. It pays overtime and built new dormitories and swimming pools for workers. Similarly, the corporate response to the suicides has been superficial. Safety nets have been installed at the dorms to catch jumpers. Guards patrol the rooftops. And the most outlandish of employer requests was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald — workers have been told to sign letters promising not to kill themselves. Further, workers have to agree to be institutionalized for any observed “abnormal mental or physical state.” There you have it. Suicides are committed only by abnormal people.

Workers crammed side-by-side

However, some reports describe aberrant work and living conditions at Foxconn which are the corporation’s responsibility. A newspaper intern took a job there and found that workers stand for 8 uninterrupted hours at a fast moving assembly line. Each worker checks thousands of gadgets every day. Overtime days are 12 hours long, six days a week. Though workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder, supervisors do not allow them to talk to anyone. Said one 22 year old woman, “I feel like I have an empty life and work like a machine.” Company dormitory living conditions force nine workers into a single “apartment.” Turnover is so high and hours spent in living quarters so short that stable social relationships outside of work are nearly impossible. Dorm life is city life but no one is in a family. The intern’s report characterized the Foxconn employees’ world as “alienated.”

Watch a video of workers describing their work conditions.

Alienation is the antithesis of employee engagement and commitment. Alienation may be at the root of workplace violence and murderous shooting sprees (see the film Murder by Proxy). Suicide is workplace violence turned inward.

Stress expert Robert Sapolsky describes social isolation as a painful, stress-inducing life condition for humans who are biologically programmed to be interactive and social. The denial of human conduct when so many others share your physical space seems an especially cruel practice. Bullied targets know very well how effectively devastating is “icing out” a colleague. Through the processes of social influence and imitation, we use others to define our reality. And the power of conformity demonstrates how willing we are to sacrifice a personal worldview to belong to a group of others.

In another essay at this site, I used the characteristics of torture summarized in Biederman’s chart of coercion to describe how bullying can affect a person. Isolation is one torture tactic. Therefore, alienation, is not to be taken lightly or discounted. It can drive a normal, healthy young person to suicide.

torture link

Lesson One, therefore, is stop designing work in ways that force workers to adjust to speedy, efficient machines. Instead, take into account the human factors involved. Stop blaming victims and branding them as mentally deficient. And stop isolating workers from each other. Allow human contact, if only at breaks (which means do not deprive workers of breaks, either).

When news broke about the suicide epidemic at Foxconn, Apple’s Steve Jobs said the contract with the manufacturer would be reviewed. The news was clearly an embarrassment. The Chinese state-run news agency (Xinhua) and Communist party paper have amplified the suicide stories about a contractor company based in Taiwan, China’s avowed political enemy. It is probably a game of political gotcha without which westerners would probably never have heard about the tragedies.

During the same week as news broke about the ninth Foxconn suicide in Shenzhen, the American business press trumpeted the news that Apple passed Microsoft and became the world’s biggest tech company. That is according to market capitalization which is what investors THINK the company is worth taking into account future earnings and future growth. With that speculative metric, Apple is second only to Exxonh Mobil. Of course, the $241.5 billion market cap is not about revenues or profits. (It’s another Wall Street concoction from the same minds that brought the world the great global recession from the innovation derivatives market.) This “accomplishment” is due to Apple’s “string of hits” such as the popularity of products made in suicide-prone Foxconn factories, according to Wired.

There you have it. Lesson Two. Success scored by speculators juxtaposed with the blood of human sacrifice staining the latest must-have gadgets that Americans line up to purchase. Oh, by the way, Canadians are set to get their iPads.

UPDATE June 7

During the last week, Foxconn agreed to raise employee wages for non-overtime work. They will now be paid approx. $290 per week, near what they could make previously only by working overtime. The two pay raises in one week have outraged investors (according to the BBC business report of June 7) who expect the costs to be passed along to Apple and other customers. Nothing, repeat nothing, should cut into stock dividends to be paid to investors, suicides notwithstanding.

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This entry was posted on Monday, May 31st, 2010 at 12:23 pm and is filed under Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, Fairness & Social Justice Denied. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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