iPad Factory in the Firing Line: Worker Suicides Have Electronics Maker Uneasy in China

By Wieland Wagner

A series of apparent suicides has shaken the management of Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer that builds parts and assembles products for many Silicon Valley firms. Hundreds of thousands of people live and work at a Foxconn factory complex in southern China, in what critics say are sweat-shop conditions.

Photo Gallery: Under Pressure at Foxconn Photos
REUTERS

It's shortly after seven in the morning, a half-hour before the morning shift. Young Chinese workers file past gray-uniformed guards, pressing their corporate IDs on the electronic gates and waiting for the green light. Then they hurry through the labyrinth of the gray factory halls and workers' dorms.

Around 300,000 people work here, in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, outside Hong Kong, on a gigantic factory complex belonging to the Taiwanese firm Foxconn. Another 120,000 people work at a smaller complex several streets away. They build cult products for global digital brands like Apple, Nintendo and Dell, ranging from the iPhone and iPad to the Notebook. Many sacrifice their health; others, even their lives.

Ma Xiangqian, 18, was part of this peculiar Foxconn world, where everything is numbered: buildings, machines, component parts, finished products and, of course, people. For wages of up to 1,940 yuan per month (€230, or $285), the young man from Henan province spent his 12-hour shifts shoving plastic pieces into a machine that formed casings for Apple computers. Then he went home to sleep with nine colleagues in a room of one of the many dormitory blocks on the factory complex.

Factory or 'Campus'?

One morning in January, Ma lay dead near the base of one of those buildings. Official cause of death: "Fall from a height." A total of 13 similar cases at Foxconn factories this year -- 10 leading to deaths -- have produced similar findings. The latest death, on May 26, occurred hours after a personal visit to the factory by Terry Gou, who runs Foxconn's parent company. And in July 2009, a technician jumped to his death after coming under suspicion of stealing an iPhone prototype.

The series of apparent or attempted suicides has shaken the management of China's largest electronics manufacturer. Liu Kun, 40, who calls himself the director of media relations, goes around in a sweat-soaked shirt. He avoids the word "factory," preferring the word "campus" -- as if Foxconn were a university. In a battery-driven golf cart -- steered by Chen Hongfang, second in command at the company union, which is controlled by the Communist Party -- Liu shows a visitor around the palm-lined streets. They want to prove how good the workers have it.

Liu points proudly at all the shops. Fast-food chains have franchises here; the Foxconn village has a factory hospital, where workers can walk in for treatment; there's a football stadium, a fitness center, a number of Internet cafés, a rehearsal room for the corporate dance troupe and a kind of academy. Television monitors installed along the streets -- or in the cafeterias -- play a corporate TV channel.

These opportunities for diversion don't change the fact that Foxconn workers have to spend their lives almost entirely on the complex. One cargo truck after another delivers components and carries away finished products. There are no warehouses at Foxconn. Once workers assemble a mobile phone or a laptop, the device goes straight to customers. This flow of products can't slow down. On Foxconn streets, workers are allowed to walk alongside each other only in pairs. If there are three of them, they must form a line.

Fastidious Regulations

Order and organization are everything, even in the factory kitchen. The gray building, from the outside, looks as boxlike and anonymous as the others, and the setting is industrial on the inside as well. An army of cooks in white smocks and rubber shoes prepares meals for the workers, overseen by Foxconn managers on a huge wall of monitors. There is fastidious regulation at every level, including the supply of ingredients, the dishwashing, the frying, baking, and boiling. Every day the cooks prepare three tons of pork, three tons of chicken, 60,000 eggs and 20 tons of rice.

If you want to leave the kitchen, you have to wash your hands. Only then does the door open. Even in the gray, five-to-12-story dormitories, the workers have press IDs on control devices before they can go outside.

Whether the sheer magnitude of the factory overwhelms the workers' psyches is not a question Foxconn managers are prepared to answer. Size, after all, guarantees low overhead and high profits -- at least according to Steve Chu, 49, a Taiwanese man in charge of one of the multi-story factory buildings. Nine-hundred workers labor on one floor alone.

The men and women in white uniform coats and bonnets are forbidden from holding personal conversations. This rule is printed on the flip side of their corporate IDs. The only sound is a whistle and hiss from the machines where they push green circuit-boards for laptops or credit-card readers. On eight different conveyor belts, they finish work on eight different products for several different world markets.

'The Devil Is in the Detail!'

Manager Chu and his assembly-line overseers spur the workers on, indefatigably, to be more efficient and precise. Even the steps of the stairwells have been garnished with warning phrases: "The devil is in the details!" Or, "Opportunity waits for those who are prepared!"

The motivational maxims are inspired by Terry Gou, the 59-year-old founder manager of Hon Hai Precision Industry, which owns Foxconn. Workers have adopted the respectful nickname "Lao Gou" (or "old Gou") for the charismatic but press-shy billionaire. His family fled China's communists, heading to Taiwan in 1949.

He built his empire 36 years ago with a factory for channel-changing dials on black and white TVs. Part of his $7,500 initial capital was borrowed from his mother. Later he manufactured connecting sockets for computers, and in 1988 he opened his first low-wage factory in mainland China.

Now, Foxconn, along with other Taiwanese giants, supplies huge sectors of the electronics industry. Sometimes they manufacture mobile phones and laptops for global brands. Foxconn employs 800,000 people in the whole of China. In the spring it boosted its workforce, hiring 150,000 more workers.

But the recent spate of deaths and serious injuries have sparked criticism even from within China, and doubts have swirled about how the firm makes its cutting-edge electronic products. The family of the dead Ma Xiangqian aims to bring Foxconn to court to explain the deaths of its workers.

Brutal Torment

It is a battle of unequals. At the start of the year, Ma Zishan 58, and his wife Gao Chaoyin, 49, grew trees. Now they share a room near the Foxconn factory with two of their three daughters. They sleep on straw mattresses. The only wall decoration is a picture of their dead son, who, in keeping with Confucian tradition, bore the family's future hopes. "Foxconn, tell us the truth," the father has written in dark letters around the edge of the photo. "My life has lost its meaning," he says.

And his youngest daughter Liqun, 22, and her boyfriend also worked at Foxconn until recently. They gave up their jobs to battle the Taiwanese factory colossus.

Liqun last saw her brother six days before he died. "He was upbeat," she says, "because he had just resigned." She adds that a production manager had brutally tormented him after a drilling fixture broke on his machine. As a punishment, Xiangqian had to clean the toilet.

Leaned up against the walls of their room stand placards used by the family to protest outside the Foxconn factory gates. With enlarged photos of Xiangqian's corpse, they want to draw attention to the inconsistencies in the story of his death. His sister Liqun tells of wounds she found on the head of his corpse -- which looked like they had been made by a drill fixture. She also found strange injuries on his upper body, wounds which would not suggest suicide. Sections of Foxconn's surveillance video are missing from around the time of their worker's death.

'Illness of the Spirit'

Ma and his daughters speak cautiously, and seem shy. They avoid blaming the powerful Foxconn directly, but they insist the situation must be clarified. They want to challenge the official report of his death in court.

But factory spokesman Liu reacts indignantly to inquiries about the Ma case. He seems satisfied with the official autopsy report. "Who do you believe?" he asks. "Foxconn or the Ma family?"

He adds that Foxconn workers never have to clean toilets -- after all, factory cleaners do that. Of course, there may be tragic incidents affecting the company's 420,000 workers in Shenzhen, he says. People suffer personal problems, heartache, home sickness, unfamiliar food flavors. "Or illnesses of the spirit," Liu says, raising his finger. One worker who recently threw himself off the balcony suffered from a persecution complex, he says, adding that the current workforce, which are mostly just over 20, are more vulnerable than that of previous generations.

Terry Gou's visit this week failed to quell criticism. He denied the recent deaths were due to Foxconn working conditions. Hours later, a 23-year-old laborer in a different Foxconn complex, in northwestern China, dropped to his death from a dorm. And on Thursday, a 25-year-old man reportedly attempted suicide by cutting himself. He survived.

International Pressure?

A storm was ignited by a recent video released on the Chinese Internet, allegedly showing security guards at a Foxconn factory in Beijing kicking and hitting workers. Wang Tongxin, a Chinese trade union official, has warned that the supplier has to show more respect for the young Chinese people who work there. Following the death of the iPhone technician last year, Apple spoke out: "We demand that our suppliers treat their workers with respect and dignity."

Company spokesman Liu is thus keen to show visitors his factory's "mental health" center. A therapist gives advice to a worker, and red banners adorn facades of some of the dormitories, encouraging people to look after each other.

But within the residential buildings, workers continue their lives according to the logic of low-cost production. In rooms filled with 10 beds, half the residents lie exhausted on their mattresses. Some of those who find it too cramped here are stretched out in front of the televisions which hang in every stairway. Every break is precious: Soon they have to return to their next 12-hour shift.

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