10th Suicide at Foxconn: When Will American Companies Speak Up?

Foxconn Technology Group is in full PR-defense mode now that another of its factory workers in China has committed suicide.

The latest victim, 19-year-old Li Hai jumped to his death on Tuesday just like the nine other employees who also have killed themselves so far this year, and two others who tried. Chinas state-run media said Hai had worked at Foxconn for a mere 42 days.

The company, which manufactures the Apple iPhone and iPad, Dell computers and Nokia cell phones, insists it is not a sweatshop and that employees are protected by so-called social responsibility programs.

Yet, clearly theres a disconnect between Foxconns perception of its working conditions, and the perceptions of its workers. For example, Marketplace, part of American Public Media, last year spoke with 15 former Foxconn workers and with Foxconn itself. The workers said base pay totals the required minimum wage of 920 RMB per month, or about $135. On top of that, Foxconn provides housing subsidies, on-campus dorms, ATM machines, karaoke facilities and free cafeteria food, Marketplace reported. Foxconn said it increases worker pay according to regulation and labor market changes, as well as according to seniority. Foxconn also said it abides by overtime laws, although former employees refute that statement and even Apple recently found that not to be true. 

In addition to all of that, Foxconn now also faces allegations of imposing long shifts, running an assembly line that moves too fast and letting managers enforce military-style discipline. But Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou refuted such attacks on Monday. We are certainly not running a sweatshop, he told reporters, according to the Associated Press. We are confident well be able to stabilize the situation soon.

Working conditions in China have become synonymous with exploitation. And in the case of Foxconn, consider that most employees there are young and moved from rural parts of the country, where theres less education and economic opportunity, to find jobs. They are less likely than their big-city counterparts to know their rights as employees, and probably even less likely to defend them. And that the American companies outsourcing to Foxconn appear equally reticent to take a stand for their third-party workers is disconcerting.

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