No simple solution to Foxconn suicides

Recent suicides at a Chinese electronics manufacturer present a harsh reality to the company and its American tech partners

Two recent Foxconn worker suicides, the ninth and 10th this year, present a harsh reality to the Chinese electronics manufacturer and its American tech partners, including Apple, Dell, and HP: fixing the problem will be difficult, if not impossible.

The deaths of 19 year-old Li Hai and a 21 year-old worker three days earlier, as reported by the Associated Press, shows an ugly side to the consumer electronics industry. Groups like China Labor Watch lay blame on inhumane working conditions at the factory. Foxconn says it will improve living standards for its employees by hiring psychiatrists, monks, and entertainers, the New York Times reports. But neither a band-aid factory measure or a good dose of outrage will fix the factory's culture.

First, consider that the number of suicides is only perceived as high. The employee suicide rate at Foxconn is higher than ever this year at 10 out of an estimated 300,000 employees (says AP) or 420,000 employees (says the Times). That's still lower than China's annual suicide rate of 14 out of 100,000 people, reported by the World Health Organization, and is on par with average statistics for people of university age in China, says the Telegraph.

Even if there were no suicides, Foxconn would still have a culture problem, as seen by an undercover account of life at Foxconn, published in Chinese newspaper Southern Weekend and translated at Engadget. The reporter, Liu Zhiyi, doesn't decry the long working hours as atrocious; he actually praises them as a way to make more money. Nor does he cite any human rights abuses. But what Zhiyi notices is that workers enter the factory intending to save up and start their own business, or go to college. Those dreams become impossible to achieve amidst the long hours and low pay, and the revelation is devastating.

What's the solution, then? Pay higher wages? Maybe, but it's low costs that attract American companies to begin with, and who's to say that a higher wage would be enough to help workers plan an exit from factory life? Besides, Foxconn's net profits have been up and down, puncturing the argument that company's being too greedy. Foxconn can keep trying its band-aid measures and human rights groups can keep decrying what happens at the factory, but neither effort is enough.

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