SHENZHEN, China — There were bows and an apology from Terry Gou, one of the richest men in Asia and chairman of Foxconn Technology.

With about 800,000 Chinese employees, revenue of about $60 billion a year and a reputation for military-style efficiency, Foxconn is possibly the world’s biggest electronics maker. It is now also the focus of criticism and troubling questions about a wave of suicides among its workers at a pair of factories here that serve as major suppliers to global brands like Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.
Sensing a public relations fiasco and facing questions from Foxconn suppliers, Mr. Gou traveled here Wednesday from Taiwan on what company executives said was an emergency trip. As part of a hastily assembled, carefully orchestrated news conference and tour led by Mr. Gou, Foxconn executives defended their labor practices, even as they vowed to do everything possible to prevent more young people from taking their own lives.


The company also presented a panel of mental health professionals to discuss the likely causes of suicide in China generally. At least one of the panelists placed the blame on social issues in the country beyond Foxconn’s control.
And perhaps in a sign of desperation, the company said it had even begun putting safety nets up on factory buildings to deter suicide attempts. (Not soon enough in at least one case, apparently. Hours after the news conference, another Foxconn employee fell to his death from one of the complex’s buildings, according to the official news agency Xinhua. It was not immediately known whether the death was an accident or suicide.)

“We’re reviewing everything,” said Mr. Gou, whose Taiwanese company controls Foxconn Technology, which operates two sprawling factories here with about 420,000 employees.
“We will leave no stone unturned and we’ll make sure to find a way to reduce these suicide tendencies,” Mr. Gou said.
Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, whose own corporate images are at risk from the suicides, say they, too, are now investigating conditions at Foxconn.
Mr. Gou, the 59-year-old founder of Foxconn and its parent company, the Hon Hai Group, sought to calm growing concerns that Foxconn’s labor practices and highly regimented operations were to blame for the rash of suicides on its two Shenzhen campuses this year.
The most recent confirmed suicide took place early Tuesday, when a 19-year-old employee fell to his death here. It was the ninth suicide this year at one of Foxconn’s two Shenzhen campuses, police said. Another two workers survived suicide attempts but suffered serious injuries.
In an interview Wednesday, Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, said that his company was “saddened and upset” by the suicides and that Apple was determined to ensure that Foxconn workers were treated with respect and dignity. Apple, whose popular iPod is among the products made by Foxconn, has conducted labor audits of the company in the past and sought improvements.


But questions about Foxconn’s labor practices have lingered. At a separate news conference late Wednesday, Shenzhen city officials suggested that the company was partly to blame for the accidents, although they offered few details.
And several labor rights groups are calling for an independent investigation into the deaths and labor practices at Foxconn. Workers are paid about $32 for a regular 40-hour workweek, which is above minimum wage in the area, and often seek to work large amounts of overtime.
“Foxconn’s production line system is designed so well that no worker will rest even one second during work; they make sure you’re always busy for every second,” says Li Qiang, executive director of the China Labor Watch, a New York-based labor rights group. “Foxconn only values the enterprise benefits but totally ignores the social benefits.”


Those claims have been bolstered in recent weeks by some of China’s state-run newspapers, which have published a series of sensational reports about the suicides, alongside exposés detailing what they claim are the harsh conditions inside Foxconn factories.
Some articles have described the company’s authoritarian management style, the heavy burdens workers face in trying to meet Foxconn production quotas. Others say the company has cramped dormitories that sometimes house 10 to a room.
But at Wednesday’s press conference, Foxconn executives extolled Shenzhen campus amenities that they said included modern dormitories, swimming pools and other recreational facilities. The company also said it had regularly passed stringent social audits conducted by Apple and other major customers, although some of those audits have cited labor infractions.


And while executives acknowledged a sharp rise in the rate of suicides on the Shenzhen campuses this year, they said there was no single or clear-cut cause. They insisted that personal problems and social ills, like the nation’s rising income gap, were largely to blame for the deaths — not the company’s management style.
“There is a fine line between productivity and regimentation and inhumane treatment,” said Louis Woo, a Foxconn executive. “I hope we treat our workers with dignity and respect.”

Foxconn executives say they have invited several groups of sociologists and mental health experts here to study the suicides and offer advice about how to prevent additional deaths.
Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and one of the experts Foxconn invited here, dismissed the idea that the company’s labor practices were to blame. He said the victims were young people, ages 18 to 24, almost all of whom had recently moved to Shenzhen from rural areas. He said he believed they struggled with personal problems and the challenges of adjusting to factory life.


Professor Jing also offered a theory that widespread reports about the earlier suicides at Foxconn this year had created a contagion of copycats, particularly after rumors spread about the high compensation the company was paying some of the victims’ families. Some families had received about 100,000 renminbi, or a little more than $14,600, according to several Foxconn employees.
“We don’t know everything yet, but this almost seems like an infectious disease,” Professor Jing said. “And paying high compensation to some may have played some role.”


Health experts say the suicide figures from Foxconn, while troubling, actually remain far below the national rate of about 14 per 100,000 in China, as calculated by the World Health Organization — a figure that compares to about 11 per 100,000 in the United States. Some independent studies, though, say suicide rates in China are higher than reflected in the health organization’s figures.


In any case, Foxconn has drawn growing scrutiny with the sudden surge in suicides at a pair of factories here that company executives say recently hired about 100,000 workers to help meet growing demand for electronics.
Last year, a 25-year-old worker killed himself after he was accused of stealing an iPhone prototype. In e-mail and text messages to friends, he said he had been beaten by the company’s security officers.
Mr. Gou rarely grants interviews and almost never allows journalists onto the Foxconn campus. But Wednesday he made an unusual show of concern, bowing several times at the news conference and apologizing for the tragedies.


And he promised to scrap recently announced plans to have all employees sign a form acknowledging that their relatives would get only basic, government-mandated compensation — and nothing more generous — if they took their own lives.
The company said it originally released the form, which has been widely criticized here, after consulting with the government, because it was worried that rumors about high compensation was a contributing factor in some of the suicide attempts.
Mr. Gou even led dozens of journalists on a tour of Foxconn’s campus, visiting dormitories, a campus hospital, a production line and a center meant for helping employees with personal problems.


And he appealed to the media to be careful in its coverage of the suicides at Foxconn, which he said could fuel even more suicide attempts.
“I’m appealing to the press to take social responsibility: do not sensationalize this,” he said. But he also said the company was re-examining its own operations. “We can be a better company.”

By DAVID BARBOZA, May 26, 2010
Bao Beibei contributed research.

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Some comments:

This is why pure capitalism doesn’t work! Pure communism doesn’t work and neither does pure socialism. Is there something so wrong with us that we can come up with these philosophies but it’s totally beyond us to use elements of them together to create a more workable solution to globalization. We need to insist that countries that treat their employees inhumanely not be allowed to sell their products in the U.S. Don’t give me cheap anything that’s built by tragically desperate and inhumanely treated people. I don’t want young people suiciding so that I can have cheaper computers. If that’s the choice, I want America to be the country that says “NO” to those companies. And this is why we have unions here in America. The unions that are touted to be socialistic, as if that’s a dirty word. Pure capitalism breeds greed. We need government protection against our own selfish inclinations. Our own country, nay the world, is suffering now because of a lack of oversight against this rampant greed. This is the adolescence of humanity. I hope we can make the leap to maturity before we destroy ourselves.

Shouldn’t the finger be pointed towards the west? Don’t we demand cheap goods? There is always a price to pay, and that price is poverty and misery for the majority of the worlds population…. It’s called Capitalism.
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“There is a fine line between productivity and regimentation and inhumane treatment,” said Louis Woo, an aide to Mr. Gou at Hon Hai

This is an unbelievable thing to say with regard to human beings. There are fine lines between many virtues and vices but not productivity and inhumane treatment!

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Americans have to realize that the relatively low-priced things they heavily consume like electronics and clothes, etc., are financed, in large part, by the misery of workers on the other side of the world existing in near slave-like conditions. Would people of the Western world really rest any easier if many of these workers simply continue to live in sub-human, slavery rather than committing suicide?

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I have studied and taught suicide prevention in China for the past five years. What is special about China and suicide is not the overall rate but the fact that it is high among young people (16-30 years old) and especially among young women. There are some cultural artifacts that influence this but the pace of industrialization and urbanization has introduced new elements to the mix. Compounding the problem is the lethal means used in China (jumping off of buildings, stepping in front of a train, pesticides) and the likelihood that attempts will be completed.

With all that, Fox Conn is a definite evil in all this, interviews with workers there document harsh and inhumane conditions, mandatory overtime (sometimes working 12 hour days for 28 days a month), and failure to make proper payments of wages and social welfare benefits. Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Korean owned factories have the worst reputation for these sorts of abuses and the government and its lackey trade union turn a blind eye, favoring economic growth.

Steve Jobs is a leading victimizer here and any notion of third party certification to protect these workers is fantasy. There are well documented abuses here and Mr. Jobs and all those who idolize his sleek, hip products have blood on their hands. No one can say, “I didn’t know!”