Death + Technology Suicide

Overtime and Under Stress

“Maybe this spate of suicides will also serve us as a wake-up call,” he said in an interview last week. “We realize we must do a better job.” —Louis Woo, a high-ranking Foxconn executive

The NY Times has written another article about the Foxconn suicides. This follows a second pay raise by the company this past Sunday and sheds more light on the incredible number of hours many factory workers are clocking. According to the article, the first suicide, Ma Xiangqian, racked up 286 hours of work time (including 112 hours of overtime) in the month before he died—that’s three times the legal limit. And the pay? The equivalent of $1 per hour.

Now, Foxconn has instituted a new policy: stay with the company for 3 months and your monthly salary will be bumped to $300—more than double what workers were getting paid 3 weeks ago. Foxconn’s management and the companies doing business with them (namely, Apple, Dell, etc.) realize they are under a lot of public scrutiny about their labor practices. There is talk of an ongoing investigation—and I hope it is true. But the cynic in me also wonders how much of it is really a CYA campaign. I hope the former, but I suspect the latter.

All this has gotten me thinking about the sociological and cultural implications and differences between East and West when it comes to this type of death. I did a little searching for books on the subject of suicide in China specifically and in Asian society more generally. If you’d like to explore things for yourself, here are some titles you might be interested in. As always, check your local library’s collection or take advantage of interlibrary loan.

Suicide and Justice: A Chinese Perspective (Routledge Contemporary China Series). Fei Wu. 2009

Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity. Christian Baudelot. 2008.

Suicide in Asia: Causes and Prevention. Paul S.F. Yip. 2009

Death + Technology Suicide

Foxconn Raises Salaries

Today’s NY Times reports that Foxconn will raise employee’s salaries by 33 percent. Assembly line workers will now go from the equivalent of approximately $132 per month to $176 per month. A week earlier, company chairman Terry Gou, had promised to improve conditions at the factory and to quell the rash of suicides plaguing the company, denying there is a correlation between worker’s salaries and the suicides. According to the Times:

The company, which is based in Taiwan and employs more than 800,000 workers in China, has denied that the suicides were work-related or above the national average, saying instead that they were the result of social ills and personal problems of young, migrant workers. Foxconn said Wednesday that the decision to raise salaries was not a direct response to the suicides.

For some insight and a bit of the backstory, check out this audio clip from the folks over at Future Tense from last week. It’s about 45 seconds in.


Rash of Suicides at China’s Foxconn

Taiwanese-owned computer and electronics manufacturing giant, Foxconn, is drawing criticism for its recent spate of suicides. At present, 10 people have committed suicide within the last year—with one of those deaths occurring just hours after company Chairman Terry Gou, bowed in apology over the deaths.

Previously, we have reported on spates of suicides in posts on France Telecom and suicide hotspots like Japan’s Cliffs of Tojimbo and China’s Yangtze River Bridge. Although it’s not totally clear whether the Foxconn suicides can be attributed to copycat behavior among employees, one thing that can be fact-checked is the average number of suicides per year in China’s population as a whole.

According to 2004 World Health Organization estimates, China’s annual suicide rate is 16.9 deaths per 100,000 people. Foxconn employs approximately 800,000 employees. So, one can argue that statistically speaking, the number of recent suicides is actually less than the national average. But due to the quick succession of deaths and the fact that they all share the same employer, one has to ask what role, if any, their workplace played in their deaths. This is what investigators both in China and the U.S. are now attempting to unravel.