Foxconn has raised pay among workers in China by an average 30 percent, but it says that the raise has nothing to do with a string of suicides that some experts say global media have misattributed to everything from poor working conditions to rapid modernization.
Foxconn has been mulling a wage increase for months because brisk global demand for computers and other gadgets has kept factories throughout southern China buzzing, a company representative said, causing a shortage of skilled laborers. Some workers had already moved on to better paying companies.
Still, the suicides may have pushed up the time frame of the raise. A number of Foxconn's high profile customers, which include Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, have recently voiced concern.
Foxconn has been under fire following a string of 13 suicide attempts by workers at its factories in China so far this year, resulting in 10 deaths.
The most recent was an apparent suicide attempt last week when a man slashed his wrists, according to a statement by police in Shenzhen.
But among the flurry of reports about Foxconn in the international media, one thing appears to have been missed: The suicide rate among the company's workers is well below the national average.
Between 2000 and 2006, China averaged 15.05 suicide-related deaths per 100,000 people in the country, according to a Nov. 2008 research paper published in The Lancet medical journal. The 10 deaths so far this year at Foxconn put it far below the national average considering it employs over 540,000 workers in China. The survey, of course, cannot address the specific stresses of working at Foxconn.
The suicides do not appear to have been caused by any of the major factors featured in recent media stories, according to Michael Phillips, director of the suicide clinic at the Shanghai Mental Health Center.
Writing in an editorial published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal, he said a careful study of the suicides needs to be taken, and notes that most explanations of the problem don't measure up: Rapid modernization in China, for example, has actually coincided with a 57 percent drop in the national suicide rate over the past 20 years, according to The Lancet paper, which he sent via e-mail.
The study says the suicide rate may have actually fallen due to modernization, because of improved economic prospects for the poor, as well as a move to cities where the most common method of suicide, drinking pesticides, is more difficult because it's not as readily available as in the countryside. At Foxconn, 12 of the suicide attempts have been leaps from tall buildings.
Foxconn has staunchly defended its treatment of workers and given press tours of its main facility, the Longhua factory complex in Shenzhen, to show off sports facilities, dormitories and conditions along production lines. The company has also taken steps to prevent further suicides, including calling in Buddhist monks and psychiatrists to provide counseling, and installing nets on buildings designed to catch people attempting to jump.
The situation at Foxconn has caused other Taiwanese contract manufacturers to take a hard look at their operations in China as well.
"We're very concerned about this situation at Foxconn," said Ray Chen, president and CEO of Compal Electronics, the world's second-largest contract manufacturer of laptop computers, during a press conference in Taipei. His company is looking into working conditions at its factories, but Compal has no plans to increase pay right now, he said. The company paid more than Foxconn prior to the suicide issue becoming a global topic, Chen said.
Phillips argues that one good that could come out of the attention on Foxconn is a renewed effort to build a suicide prevention strategy in China.
"China has yet to develop a national strategy to tackle suicide as a public-health problem," he said.
The best way to handle the current situation at Foxconn would be to conduct a careful study of precisely what happened, he said, including the importance of the working environment, potential "suicide clustering" effect caused by media attention and other underlying stresses or psychological problems that may have driven individuals to take their lives.