A spate of recent suicides at Foxconn has highlighted the concerns over working conditions inside the giant Longhua factory, where 300,000 workers assemble goods for clients including Apple, Sony, Nintendo, Dell and Nokia.
The deaths comes as Apple prepares to launch the iPad in the UK at the end of this week. Yesterday, Apple declined to comment on the situation.
The Longhua factory is the biggest in the world and is responsible for over 20pc of the annual exports emerging from Shenzhen, the one-time fishing village that has become one of the capitals of the world’s manufacturing industry.
In the lobby of Foxconn’s headquarters in Hong Kong, a group of around two dozen protestors laid mannequins to rest and conducted funeral rites. “We are staging the protest because of the high death rate [at Foxconn], with an abnormal number of workers committing suicide in the past five months,” said Debby Chan, a spokesman for the Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour group.
“We are not a sweatshop,” said Terry Gou, 59, who founded Foxconn in 1974. “We are doing a lot every day and we are confident the situation will soon stabilise. A manufacturing team of 800,000 people is very difficult to manage.”
Mr Gou is heading to the factory and will hold a press conference on Wednesday.
Although the number of suicides is statistically in line with the Chinese average for young people, the rate of cases appears to be gathering speed.
China has been transfixed by the problems at one of its prize companies, and security camera footage of one suicide victim, a 24-year-old woman named Zu Chengmin, walking unsteadily out onto the roof of a Foxconn building on her way to her death was aired on the main news bulletins.
The latest death came just a few days after an unnamed 21-year-old male worker fell from the top of a four-floor building at Longhua, and ten days since two other colleagues also fell from buildings at the plants. In addition, Foxconn has said that it has managed to prevent a further 20 attempts this year.
“You cannot compare the situation with the national average suicide rate,” said Jin Shenghua, a professor of psychology at Beijing Normal University who was flying down to advise the company on the situation yesterday.
“When the rate of suicide jumps rapidly it is alarming. You can only compare this with the situation in other similar factories”.
Questions are also being raised about the sustainability of China’s manufacturing model, which has relied on enormous scale, an endless pool of labour, and long hours to achieve its competitive advantage.
“[The deaths] force us to question the future of the ‘factory of the world’ and the new generation of migrant workers,” according to nine Chinese social sciences professors in an open letter to Foxconn last week.
“This new generation of workers is better-educated, has higher dreams, more thoughts, and can feel greater suffering,” said broadcasters on the state-run CCTV.
“The previous generation only thought about how to improve the lives of their family, the younger generation starts to think about themselves more.”
It added that workers at Foxconn, faced with 12-hour days, seven days a week, are less able to “chi ku”, or “eat bitterness”, than hardbitten older workers.
Lu Xin, a 24-year-old university graduate who committed suicide on May 6, wrote in his diary: “I came to this company for money, [but then I realised] this is wasting my life, my future. I made a mistake even at the first step of my adult life. I am lost.”
A reporter for Southern Weekend newspaper, who spent 28 days undercover on the production line at Longhua, said that workers dreamed of improving their lives, but were faced with low wages, a sense of alienation in the vastness of the factory, and few friends among the transient population of fellow employees.
According to Foxconn’s own figures, 5pc of its workers at Longhua, or 15,000 people, quit each month.
“It is not just Foxconn, it is the whole factory system. Obviously the focus is now on Foxconn and every new death will be reported, but there are other suicides in other factories and the owners hush it up and pay the families quietly and no one will ever know about it,” said Geoffrey Crothall, at China Labour Bulletin, a workers’ rights NGO in Hong Kong.
He suggested the problems at Foxconn had partly been because of the size of Longhua, and partly because the plant is just 30 minutes away from Shenzhen, where workers can envy at people of their own age driving luxury cars and carrying the iPhones they themselves make, but cannot afford.
“The response from Foxconn so far has been superficial. A concrete solution would be to raise the wages by 50pc or even 100pc. These workers are coming to Foxconn not just to survive, but to make their lives better,” he said.
Last Monday, Hon Hai Precision, Foxconn’s parent company, announced net profits of 18bn new Taiwan dollars (NTD) for the first quarter (£397m), a rise of 34.8pc year-on-year. Yesterday, however, the company’s share price sank 5pc to NTD126