This is not the normal kind of story we cover. But we think it is appropriate that we pause to spare a thought for the traumatic time that Chinese tech workers are going through at the moment.
Today it seems that several workers at the Foxconn factory in China, where devices such as the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch are made, have tried to commit suicide. This is over and above the one or two suicides that have been reported in the past few months.
As of Thursday this week, in total, 13 employees of Foxconn had tried to commit suicide. As of this afternoon that number may have reached as many as 16 individuals.
Foxconn employs around 400,000 people. And their working environment is very different from that of manual labourers in the US or Europe. They live, eat and sleep inside a factory compound. Almost like an existence in a military camp. That is not to say they are treated like conscripts, prisoners, or slaves. But partly because of the extreme secrecy surrounding some of the items they make, and cultural differences in how this type of worker is employed in China, their life is very different from something we might imagine.
Unfortunately, in China working conditions with regards to safety are not subject to the same stringent guidelines that we have in the West. Sometimes this is because of immature legislation which does not protect employees adequately. Sometimes it is through corruption. But the fact remains that something is obviously very wrong with certain parts of Foxconn’s business practices. And it seems to be coming to a head. Scant weeks ago there were what seemed like mini-uprisings inside the factory compound where workers were protesting over working conditions.
The crux of the protests seemed to be about exposure to hazardous materials during manufacture of electronics equipment. Those protests were quickly quelled by Foxconn’s own security.
“Foxconn may not be a sweatshop in the sense that it physically abuses its employees or forces them to work extra hours,” the China Daily Newspaper wrote in an editorial today. “That does not mean it is showing enough humanitarian concern for its employees. And, neither does it imply that it is doing enough to foster a corporate culture that helps employees strike a healthier work-life balance.”
At least four high profile tech companies use Foxconn’s services; Apple, Dell, Sony and HP. And whilst it’s not directly their fault that employees of their subcontractors are so unhappy with their work conditions that they feel the only way out, or to get attention for their fellow workers, is suicide. It is certainly something they should, and indeed do, take very seriously. Sony, Dell, HP and Apple are all independently investigating this currently.
Apple produces annual reports, and conducts extensive surveys, on the conditions of its proxy employees around the globe. And over the last few months with negative stories about working conditions, exposure to hazardous materials, and general worker morale coming out of Foxconn, all four of these tech companies say they have stepped up their efforts to find out what exactly is going on inside the factory compound.
So this development today must be both upsetting, embarrassing, and very worrying for them. Especially as some workers advocate groups in Asia are now advocating boycotting new products like Apple’s iPhone 4G / HD.
Apple spokesman Steve Downing had this to say :
“We’re in direct contact with Foxconn senior management and we believe they are taking this matter very seriously. A team from Apple is independently evaluating the steps they are taking to address these tragic events and we will continue our ongoing inspections of the facilities where our products are made.”
He finished by saying that Apple is “saddened and upset by the recent suicides at Foxconn.”
BREAKING (Via Al Jazeera): We are just hearing that the Chinese News media are reporting that another employee has attempted to slit his wrists this evening, in a departure from the other suicides which have usually been jumping from a building roof.
This is very sad, and hard to take in.
We all want our iPads, iPhones and iPods. And we like to buy them cost effectively. But not at this human cost, surely.
Something obviously needs to be done for these people quickly. Let’s hope our tech giants are up to the task at hand.
Let us know your thoughts on this sad story in the comments.