Suicides at Foxconn reveal woes

08:36, May 26, 2010      

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Another young man jumped from a building at Foxconn on Tuesday. Hu Yinan tries to find out the reasons behind the string of tragedies at the Shenzhen base of the 'world factory'.

Hua Zhenying does not work for Foxconn Technology Group for fun. He does it for the money - and for the extra cash he makes helping desperate youngsters to "buy" a job with the Fortune 500 company.

All of his clients are among the poorest members of Chinese society. They are usually rural men aged 17 to 24, who have about three years of experience in manufacturing but no high school diploma. Very few have even finished middle school.

To pass the preliminary checks at Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics maker, these workers must find company "agents" like Hua through job centers in Guangdong province that demand up to 300 yuan ($44) to guarantee them a spot on the production lines.

Hua takes a cut of that fee, and also tries to suck more from their wallets by selling them fake vocational or high school certificates that the company rarely checks - 30 to 100 yuan depending on the applicant's financial status - and putting them up at a hostel that charges 15 yuan for a dorm bed and 40 yuan for a single room.

At about 9 am every day, he sends minivans bursting with a dozen or so new recruits and their luggage to Guanlan, a town in northern Shenzhen, where the company's human resources center is based. Each passenger is made to pay 10 to 20 yuan for the ride.

Although a series of nine suicides (two others survived) at Foxconn over the last five months - 19-year-old Li Hai on Tuesday morning became the 11th person to jump from a building on the compound after just 42 days with the company - has led to intense speculation over the working conditions at its factories, the media coverage has done little to deter people from applying for work there.

The company employs 800,000 people, 420,000 of whom are based in Shenzhen, reported Xinhua News Agency. According to Foxconn spokesman Liu Kun, the sheer number of people applying to work there every day - roughly 8,000 - is hard proof that it is not the "sweatshop" some labor activists and media claim.

One of those waiting in line outside the Guanlan base this week was Li Donghai, a 25-year-old migrant worker from Sanmenxia, Henan province. "I'm only here because I've already paid all that money and ought to wait until they finish the physical exams," he said, before adding that he plans to leave the job after three months.

Li's transient attitude is common among the younger production line workers in Guangdong, where most shift from one plant to the next after just a couple of months. The monthly turnover rate of Foxconn's ground-level employees is 5 percent, said Wan Hongfei, a senior manager at the company.

Staff treatment

The majority of production line workers at Foxconn are hired through vocational schools, job centers or by recommendation. Staff receive 200 yuan for every person they bring in.

All must undergo a physical examination, which costs 50 yuan. However, after a thorough health check of staff this year, the company found that "half the workers were ill before they even got in", an employee surnamed He in the company's publicity department told First Financial Daily.

Waiting in line to have a health and identity card check in Guanlan takes a day sweating away in tight lines with about 1,000 people amid constant orders from Foxconn "instructors" who confiscate mobile phones if they find anyone playing with one.

Once in the medical room, nurses take candidates' blood, give them a quick eyesight check and rush through other inspections before they are led to dormitories. An unnamed instructor tells them, "It doesn't matter since you've come this far".

At the end of the day, applicants are assigned beds in one of the seemingly endless lines of gray, 10-bed rooms.

"I know why all those people jumped (from the building)," said Lin Fengxiang, a 23-year-old villager from Maoming, Guangdong, as he walked into his allocated dorm. "In here, nobody gives a damn about you. Too bad I've already got one foot on this boat. It's hard to get off now."

Like many his age, Lin is trying to pay off his family's debt by working here. He paid more than 400 yuan to get in and has been assigned to Foxconn's Wireless Business Group (WLBG) to assemble cell phones.

The Taiwanese-owned Foxconn, which makes computers, games consoles and phones for clients like Apple, Motorola, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Sony Ericsson, has long been criticized in the media for its harsh working conditions.

In June 2006, the company petitioned Shenzhen's intermediate court to freeze the assets of a reporter and editor at First Financial Daily in Shanghai after suing the pair for 30 million yuan for defamation. It withdrew the lawsuit three months later.

The gates of its bases in Longhua town and Guanlan are locked and guarded by uniformed security personnel at all times, and billboards outside warn that trespassers will be prosecuted.

During training sessions, recruits are reminded they must politely refuse all interview requests from journalists and then report to their superiors. "Whatever (you think) you should say or shouldn't say, just don't say it," Du Xiaoling told 200 newcomers to the WLBG division in a lecture last Monday.

Behind closed doors, Foxconn employees must also conform to a set of strict practices.

In the first few hours of a two-day course on May 22, WLBG trainees were constantly reminded by their instructor - former armed police officer Li Mengqiang - not to challenge his authority unless they dared to "go against all security officers in the Longhua (compound)". Later, he said he had been told by a manager to punish any recruit he saw sleeping or chatting during the training.

Five men who made mistakes filling in their contract forms were threatened with expulsion, while those with the wrong forms were charged 50 yuan for the right ones.

Li Mengqiang said he has trained more than 30,000 workers this year.

"This is their territory. We can only try to survive," said trainee Li Cheng as he tried to comfort a fellow new arrival during Du's lecture, which ended with the audience being made to recite Foxconn's corporate values.

According to the company mantra, "love" and "integration" are among the most important of their values. Yet analysts and employees argue that strict discipline is what managers value the most. Workers here are barred from taking personal belongings out of their dormitories unless they get signed permission, and can be sacked if they consistently refuse to finish all the food on their plates in the canteen.

An intern sent to work undercover for Foxconn's logistics department for 28 days in May by the Southern Weekend newspaper reported some production line staff are forced to stand for up to eight hours nonstop and have no time to communicate with each other.

Wang Tongxin, vice-chairman of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions, in April urged Foxconn to adopt a more humane style of management.

Nine sociologists in Beijing also wrote an open letter to the media that called for Foxconn and other companies to halt what they call "a model where fundamental human dignity is sacrificed for development".

Recent counseling sessions for employees also found most employees do not even know their roommates' names, said Chen Hongfang, deputy chairman of the Foxconn workers' union.

Following the recent tragedies, the company's managers have repeatedly cited the fact that they offer free meals and dormitories and free washing services for dorm tenants. They have installed swimming pools and reading rooms, as evidence of Foxconn's positive treatment towards staff.

Foxconn has set up two mental aid lines in recent months. There are also plans to recruit psychological counselors, choreographers, singers and gym coaches, who could help relieve workers' pressure, reported China Youth Daily.

The family of those who committed suicide will each receive 110,000 yuan in compensation, the Shenzhen authorities said.

Few options

The problems facing workers in South China's labor-intensive industries are not solely concentrated in Foxconn's compounds, and experts say the recent string of suicides reflects a growing social problem among the "new generation" migrant workers.

"New generation migrant workers get much, much less pay than their predecessors for the same amount of time at work," said Liu Kaiming, director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a Shenzhen think-tank.

The proportion of China's GDP that goes towards salaries has steadily decreased since 1983, according to Zhang Jianguo, head of the collective contracts department for the All China Federation of Trade Unions. As the wealth gap widens, the poor migrant workers feel the greatest pressure.

Those with little education often have no option but to buy fake ID cards and diplomas, and labor for months at various factories until they grow too old to continue.

As working on a production line offers no meaningful training or chances to progress - the furthest most rise to is line chief - manufacturing jobs are a dead-end.

"Laboring for others isn't what I want to do," said Lin Fengxiang, one of Foxconn's new recruits. "I don't want to be rich; I just want to live the life I want. But it must be fate."

Many young migrant women say their only alternative to working the lines is working the streets.

"I couldn't bear it," said Li Wenxiu, a prostitute in Dongguan, another industrial city in Guangdong, about her experience working at a lamp factory two years ago. The 20-year-old from Changde, Hunan province, quit the plant job after just a month. "There was never a break. I don't know how others can do it."

(The names of all workers have been changed to ensure their safety.)

Source:China Daily


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