Foxconn suicides: 'Workers feel quite lonely'

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A string of suicides at a factory in China owned by Taiwan firm Foxconn has highlighted what some say is a stressful working environment for migrant workers.

Foxconn says it is employing trained counsellors and installing more leisure facilities at the factory in Shenzhen to help its staff, as well as increasing salaries to boost morale.

Here, people who have worked at or visited the plant describe the working atmosphere which many have blamed for the suicides.

Bruce Blanch, Canadian consultant, Shenzhen

Bruce Blanch

The deaths at Foxconn are being discussed by everyone here and people are keeping a macabre score of how many young people have leapt to their deaths. It's very sad.

Yesterday Foxconn sent a letter to be signed by all employees, removing liability to the company should an employee die. It immunised them against law suits. There was an outcry in the Chinese media and today Foxconn withdrew the letter.

One chap was interviewed on CCTV [China Central Television] last night outside the Foxconn complex, where he works. He was saying that workers do 100 hours of overtime per month. They don't do anything but working there. They don't even talk to the people working next to them.

There is a suspicion being floated that some of the people who committed suicide, did it for money. The math works like this: the average employee earns about 2,000 yuan per month ($295:£200), but the company pays 100,000 yuan compensation to the family of anyone dying on site. To an unstable 20 year-old, the thought of that much money going to their parents could be attractive.

The morale at the factory was very low when I was training there. Young engineers referred to the company as Foxconn University - a place to get a couple of year's experience after graduating, and before moving on to a more relaxed job.

There's a recreation centre, but the engineers I was training told me they had never been there. Then I saw on TV that there's a stress room full of these dolls that look like Japanese warriors. You get a bat and you beat them. That's how they are encouraged to relieve the stress.

The security at Foxconn has always been extremely tight. On arriving at the main gate, visitors had to surrender their passports to the guards and bags were searched.

If one wanted to enter any of the manufacturing or training areas within the campus, there would be further checkpoints to be negotiated and additional passes issued. When confronted with security on this scale, it's easy to compare the place to a prison.

Anonymous Foxconn worker

Interview by the BBC's Chinese service

I am not sure about the reasons for these suicides but I feel that they are personal. The situation is probably the same everywhere, across many other factories. The Foxconn workers feel that way.

Start Quote

After work we go for a walk, we get online... Life here is OK”

End Quote

Obviously work is tiring and there's pressure. There are lots of rules here, for example you have to wear a uniform and a badge, you cannot smoke in public areas, you are only allowed to walk in authorised areas within the factory.

A normal working day is 8am and 5.30pm but many people work till 8pm. The night shift starts at 8pm and ends at 8am.

After work we go for a walk, we get online, sometimes we go together outside the supermarket to watch TV on a big screen. Life here is OK.

It's not very easy for me to give a conclusion because I don't know much about the individual cases. Now a lot of people feel it's probably because of the management style which is like a military training.

Workers don't have much time to communicate with each other and they feel quite lonely. We work six days a week with one day off and every day we work two hours overtime.

The salary is quite low for newcomers, the lowest in Shenzhen, but once you've been here a while, it gets better. I've also heard that salaries will be increased.

Anonymous former Foxconn employee

I currently live and work in Ireland. Before that I worked in project management for Foxconn. The job often involved visiting the manufacturing sites in China with our customers before and during production ramp-up.

The factories themselves are top notch although they are fairly intense working environments. Westerners would find it very difficult to work there.

Employees have to work long days and many of the staff were working at least six days a week. So it was very common to hear of people being burnt out.

During change of shift, imagine Wembley emptying after a game, employees were often organised in "platoon"-sized groups for a pre-shift briefing. So I am not surprised to hear of military-style enforcement.

Read some of your emails

I have worked at the Foxconn plant for three months now. I feel this factory is very good. The salary, both the basic salary and the overtime payment come on time and is a substantial amount for a farmer. However, labour intensity is very high and this is the most important reason for the suicides. I feel the pressure too. But I like this factory very much: it's very good, gave us jobs and substantial salaries. It's a shame that i will have to leave because of pressure from my husband, relatives and friends who keep talking about the number of people jumping to their death. They are all worried about me. But I feel they don't understand. I also feel very sad when I hear that someone else has jumped again. They are so young.

Mrs Liu, China

As a factory manager for an electronics company in southern China, I have a certain sympathy for Foxconn yet also a sense that this was waiting to happen. Statistically the suicide rate is close to average for what is in effect a small city. However, what Foxconn management have not recognised is that the Chinese worker is changing. The days of toiling for hours for basic pay and being very happy are long gone. As China opens up, the workers are exposed to Western ideals of consumerism and freedom. Seeing this in the outside world and yet being treated like army recruits inside leaves many thinking what is it all for. But one thing the press in the West constantly does is use Western society as a bench mark. I always smile when I see pictures of Chinese workers asleep at production lines - this is their culture. Chinese are taught from school that lunch time is nap time. The 1.5-hour lunch break is common practice, almost sacred. How often do we have that in the West? They actually think I am mad working through my lunch, which is a common Western practice! While the rates of pay seem a pittance to us in the West, they are in line with the cost of living, which apart from the downtown areas is very cheap, by comparison. This is however no defence for Foxconn. I have been to Longhua many times and have myself been on the receiving end of Foxconn security excess. Working 60 hours a week is hard, I myself used to do more than 70 hours in a UK factory before. But "brand F", as we know it in the trade, needs to learn how to balance authority with the compassion necessary to manage a large, young and unskilled workforce.

Steve, Southern China

One of my alumna worked in Foxconn one year and then she resigned. She said that workers there can't find happiness and freedom. The factory is just like a jail. If you want to earn more money you must work overtime. Many migrant workers who want to fulfil their dreams cross China to work there. But there is an obvious gap between fact and dream. They can't afford the cost of living in Shenzhen with their salary. The high housing prices and living costs push them into more work day and night.

Matthew, China

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