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This weekend a video showing Foxconn guards roughing up an employee also leaked, raising questions over whether Apple's demand for secrecy is leading to employee abuse.   (Source: Shanghaiist)
Is the real story here the suicides themselves, or the abusive working conditions revealed by the investigation?

Last week we reported on a shocking expose conducted by the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly which revealed harsh working conditions at a Foxconn plant that assembles iPods, iPads, and more.  The poor working conditions were brought into sharp focus after a string of suicides at the plant, including one questionable death of an employee that lost an iPhone prototype.

On Friday another employee took their life, raising the death toll to 8 this year. And along with the report came a recently leaked video of security guards at the company's Beijing facility allegedly beating up an employee.

Many questions surround the suicides and their potential connection to employee abuse.  Among the most common questions is whether the Foxconn suicide toll is abnormal.

Many observers have noted that China has a high suicide rate.  This is certainly true.  China's suicide rates have been slowly falling for the last several years, but they're still among the world's highest.  In 2007 the rate was at 286,000 suicides a year.  That's about 21.4 people per 100,000 people.  According to the latest World Health Organization figures, this rate has dropped to around 13.9 suicides per 100,000 people.

Given that figure, it would be easy to assume that Foxconn's Apple plant would typically have a suicide rate of about 46 people a year, given that it officially employs over 330,000 people (some reports have put the true figure at closer to 400,000 people).

However Foxconn's own statistics raise more questions regarding the situation.  Foxconn reported only 3 suicide deaths at the plant in 2009 (in line with the premise that a well employed work force has a lower suicide rate).  There have been no widespread reports of suicides at Foxconn motherboard plants this year.

The rash of recent suicides comes as employees have been being pressured to work long hours to fulfill demand for Apple's popular iPhones and iPads.  Also there's the recent video and fresh reports of security staff antagonizing employees in wake of Apple's demand for unparalleled secrecy at the plant.  One of the three suicides that occurred at the plant last year came after security staff beat an employee who lost a prototype of the fourth generation iPhone.  Foxconn guards have also beat up reporters trying to interview workers at Apple's secret plant.

Apple's own recent internal audit complained that many of its suppliers were engaging in abusive working practices, including forcing employees to work unpaid overtime, and using child labor.  It did not tell which suppliers were found in violation.

It is important to consider that Apple is certainly not the only company whose products are manufactured by Chinese employees reportedly working in poor conditions.  Intel, Nintendo, Sony, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and Amazon are among Foxconn's other customers.  Nonetheless, the pressure in terms of secrecy at these facilities (and corresponding employee abuse) may not be quite as high.

At the end of the day, the question now becomes how to receive these numbers.  Are they acceptable given that they still seem better than China's population as a whole?  Or are they unacceptable given the reportedly hellish working conditions at the plant, that may be directly causing the suicides?  And regardless of that debate, should the true story here perhaps be that the workplace conditions at Apple's manufacturing partners border on abuse?

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By Spacecomber on 5/23/2010 10:43:05 PM , Rating: 3
The focus on Apple and Foxconn seems to be a rather skewed perspective. My understanding is that Foxconn's manufacturing touches on a very large proportion of computer manufacturing, in general. For example, I bet most of the motherboards that I've looked at had something (CPU socket, EIDE connector, etc.) that was stamped with the FoxConn name. And, I believe that they provide the actual manufacturing for many OEM and name brand motherboards.

Perhaps others have more information on just how large a presence FoxConn is in the computer market.

By Pryde on 5/24/2010 12:18:50 AM , Rating: 5
The problem is that Apples marketing image is all Clean, Green and Friendly yet it really is no better than any of the other hardware manufacturers, out to make as much money as possible.

By ians55 on 5/24/2010 5:03:23 PM , Rating: 1
Oh really? Isn't China a communist state?

By elvarsteinn on 5/24/2010 5:23:44 PM , Rating: 2
Actually, its economy is very capitalist.

By monkeyman1140 on 5/28/2010 4:09:25 PM , Rating: 2
Which just goes to show that totalitarian regimes and capitalism mix just fine.

Americans naively believe that Capitalism = Democracy.

China has found out that capitalism and a non-union workforce of near slave labor employees are great partners.

go to this site to see how huge the Chinese manufacturing base is:

Its ridiculous, they make EVERYTHING now.

By HrilL on 5/24/2010 12:39:23 PM , Rating: 3
also for as much are apple charges they have plenty of money to pay these people a lot more and not force them to work unpaid overtime. These people are basically slaves at apples expense.

By someguy123 on 5/24/2010 1:36:00 AM , Rating: 2
Foxconn has connections with many companies, but the reason the focus is on apple is because apple has an indirect connection with this particular incident (increased demand and demand of unparalleled secrecy). The last large incident with Foxconn was also a iphone issue, but it seems apple has yet to reprimand or pull away from foxconn and foxconn has done nothing to fix its working conditions.

"People Don't Respect Confidentiality in This Industry" -- Sony Computer Entertainment of America President and CEO Jack Tretton

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