Rash of Suicides in China where Apple Products are Produced

China's FoxConn produces Apple, Dell and Nokia products.

ByABC News
May 31, 2010, 1:07 PM

SHENZHEN, China, June 1, 2010 — -- Ma Xiang Qian was 19 years old when, according to police reports, he plunged to his death from a high building in the Foxconn dormitories on Jan. 23. He had been working at the company for just 73 days.

He's one of 10 company employees to die this year at the electronics company's Shenzhen complex, drawing criticism from the Chinese government and demands that Foxconn, which works with electronics giants like Apple, Nokia and Dell, improve the conditions for the more than 400,000 employees who work there.

In a tiny one-room apartment, Ma's mother wept softly on a recent day as she held a picture of her son. His father's face was etched with the pain of their loss.

"The more I think about his death, the sadder I feel," his father Ma Zi Shan told ABC News, "Sometimes I think I can't go on living."

Ma's sister, Ma Li Qun, 22, also worked for Foxconn and said the pressure was enormous.

"We were not allowed to talk during work. We weren't even allowed to look around. Our superiors used a stop watch to time us. We were fined for any mistakes we made."

She said her brother was verbally and emotionally abused by Foxconn superiors.

"My brother wasn't happy at Foxconn. In the beginning he worked quite slowly and his superiors would scold him. They made him clean the toilets for a month."

The Ma family does not believe that their son committed suicide and claim that he was murdered, although it's not clear if there is any evidence to support such a claim.

Foxconn, a unit of Hon Hai Precision Industry, recently announced a series of measures to combat the suicides. The company said it would train counselors and set up a hotline for troubled employees, and provide opportunities for more leisure activities.

It has even started putting up nets around buildings, designed to catch workers who decide to jump. Workers were also installing wire barriers across open balconies on high floors at Foxconn dormitories.

Foxconn employs thousands of young migrant workers between the ages of 18 and 25, many of whom come from rural areas to live and work on the company complex.

According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate for China is 14 per 100,000 people (compared to 11 per 100,000 in the U.S.), which would imply that the number of suicides is not in itself unusually high. But the high number in such a short period has drawn attention to the tough working conditions of Chinese factory's employees.

Labor activists in neighboring Hong Kong have criticized what they call poor conditions and military-style discipline with long shifts, few breaks and fast assembly lines.

And Chinese officials are beginning to speak out, demanding that Foxconn clean up its act.

Chinese Government Calls for Improved Conditions

The Communist Party chief of southern China's Guangdong Province Wang Yang told a conference on Saturday that companies need to care more for their employees, according to Xinhua, China's state-run news agency.

Wang said Foxconn and labor unions must "work together and take effective measures to prevent similar tragedies from happening again."

Wang also called on young employees to cherish their lives. Most of the employees who committed or attempted suicide were under 25. "Economic development should be people-oriented," he said.

Li Ping, secretary general of the Shenzhen government, has said that the pressure of being away from home with little care from society is a complex and far-reaching problem that contributed to the spate of young migrant workers' suicides.

Taiwanese company Hon Hai is the parent company for Foxconn. It made billions of dollars in profit last year and is considered to be extremely secretive. One factory worker told ABC News his average wage is $140 per month. Foxconn has pledged to raise salaries by 20 percent to help improve the lives of its employees.

Hon Hai is possibly the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer and employees 800,000 people in China who churn out products for Apple, Nokia, Dell, Sony, Nintendo.