Suicides in China – is this a Foxconn problem or an Apple problem?

Foxconn, a large technology manufacturer in China has a cluster of suicides.  This issue is getting more attention than normal in Western media because the company manufactures products for Apple and the Apple iPad went on sale around the world at the same time news about the suicides broke.

The question that must be asked is “is this a Foxconn problem or an Apple problem?”

Accurate worker safety news is notoriously difficult to obtain from China as many of the issues associated with the safety of coal mines has shown over the last decade.  Western reports must be considered carefully to try to determine facts, or as accurate information as possible.

  • To date, there have been around 12 suicides.
  • All have been the result of jumping off a building.
  • The victims are all under 25 years of ages and have been working for Foxconn for no more than 12 months.
  • Employees live on the premises.
  • Nets have been installed around the buildings to stop deaths.

Two Reuters video reports are available online, here and here but one includes comments from an unidentified person so that person’s information and authority is dubious.  Safety audit reports of both Foxconn and Apple are quoted below.

A 28 May 2010 interview with Jenny Chan of the Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour is available online through the 3CR radio program, Asia-Pacific Currents.

Other media attention about working conditions in China have occurred regularly over the last twenty years as the manufacturing sector has expanded throughout Asia. But in most of those situations, the focus had been on the obligations of either the parent company or the retailer of the goods.  In the current Foxconn situation, few fingers are being pointed at Apple.

Foxconn’s corporate social responsibility statement is available online, although the latest is 2008.  Its pledges on OHS and working conditions would not seem out-of-place in any similar Western report:

“We make every effort to eliminate workplace hazards and provide safe, healthy and comfortable living conditions for our employees.  Our safety culture is founded on the premise that all injuries are preventable.  To this end, we have established “zero incidents and zero injuries” as our goal.  We pursue this goal through a culture of continuous improvement in which all incidents are reported and investigated, and the root causes are resolved.  We believe that safety and health is a journey of continuous improvement and eternal diligence.  We are never satisfied with our accomplishment and will continue to take steps to improve the safety and health of all of our employees.”

A clear breach of these public commitment would be part of the reason behind the executive’s apology seen in one of the videos above.

The Foxconn pledge matches its obligations under Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct and 2010 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report:

“The companies we do business with must provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made.”

In 2009 Apple audited its suppliers and found that there was a 98% compliance.  [It is important to note that the progress report does not name the suppliers that were audited]

“… our audits identified 17 core violations: eight violations involving excessive recruitment fees; three cases where underage workers had been hired; three cases where our supplier contracted with non certified vendors for hazardous waste disposal; and three cases of falsified records provided during the audit.”

Apple stated that working hours maxima were violated across several sites but ask yourself whether you would accept these working hours or expect your employees to accept these working hours:

“Apple’s Code sets a maximum of 60 work hours per week and requires at least one day of rest per seven days of work, while allowing exceptions in unusual or emergency circumstances.” (emphasis added)

Excessive working hours is not listed as one of the 17 “core violations” in the Apple progress report.  The Supplier Code of Conduct specifies that the 60 hours maximum includes overtime

In 2007 Garrett D Brown stated that:

“Under Chinese labor law, working hours per month are restricted to 40 hours per week plus 36 hours of overtime for the month, for approximately 210 hours of work a month.”

According to an 18 May 2010 report by China Labor Watch, an organisation that has spoken directly with Foxconn workers:

“The factory has arranged for workers to take one day of rest every 7 days after May.  Before May, they can be on leave for one day in every 13 days; if they take a day of leave on a working day, they have to work overtime for an additional day over the weekend.  That is to say, some workers are on the line every day of the month.”

Until May 2010, workers may have had only on day of rest in every 13, clearly breaching Apple’s own requirements.

Is satisfying the consumerist need of Westerners for iPads an “unusual or emergency circumstance”?  Would Apple consider applying “fair trade” conditions to its iPads and iPhones?  Would Apple’s Code even meet fair trade conditions?

It is early days in the investigation of suicides at Foxconn but SafetyAtWorkBlog is reassured that the work of NGOs in the region will identify any breaches of Chinese OHS law and violations (core or otherwise) of local and overseas corporate commitments.

The suicides are tragic and we are not aware of the impact to the workers’ families from this loss of a relative nor the potential economic impact on families.  The suicides should prick our consciences when we lust over an iPhone or an iPad.  We should  ask ourselves whether we are purchasing “blood tech”?

Kevin Jones

An important book on corporate codes of conduct was produced by the Asia Monitor Resource Centre and is available for download for free –  A Critical Guide to Corporate Codes of Conduct – Voices From the South

Update 3 June 2010

A short email exchange between an Apple customer and Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the Foxconn suicides is circulating through the IT websites.

reservoir, victoria, australia

10 thoughts on “Suicides in China – is this a Foxconn problem or an Apple problem?”

    1. The CSB has been a great source of safety information over the years and its support for and use of the internet is a good example to may other regulators on the benefits of transparency,

  1. This is a huge challenge for all industry to take on. They go to the cheapest place in the world to get their products made and then sell it at price per item that are higher than the employees get paid per month.

    When Levi\’s where challenged by the UN in regard to employing under-aged workers in India they faced a concern of keeping the workers employed or sacking them -mainly young girls- and having them go into prostitution, or facing continuing sanctions by various international agency\’s.
    The solution was simple and elegant as well as self-serving for Levi\’s.
    The company kept all the under-age workers on and sent them to school at reaching age of employment the workers returned to the sewing machines that were waiting for them.

    There is a solution to the suicides in china in regard to the making of the iPads and any other electronic equipment.
    The solution is in the hands of the Board members of each company to require the factories to adopt real OHSW standards, to accept that the lives of the workers are worth far more than the profit line on the flowcharts used to impress the western world.
    If the western world wants to continue to rape the profits they have made on the backs of injured maimed and deceased workers then they need to be held accountable for the lives lost nothing less is acceptable.

  2. There must be a time for discussing the problem. The employer should act actively to solve the problem, not only think about benefits. And form the workers\’ site, they should throw away though about suicide. That\’s not good action.

    Both parties should always make communication as the first way to solve problem appears in an organization.

  3. Brian Haywood who convenes the Safety Engineering Network (http://www.safteng.net/) & commented on his LinkedIn group that the suicides could be caused by a \”Mad Hatter Effect\” from exposure to chemicals in the factory:

    http://tinyurl.com/2bh8zo8
    \”
    20:1 odds that we are dealing with another \”mad hatter\” effect. These workers are using some pretty nasty chemicals in these manufacturing processes. In the USA we have many layers of protection to reduce exposures (engineering controls, administrative controls, and PPE) in these semi conductor manufacturing and over there I understand they have very little. Exposures have been found to be 3X NIOSH RELs and ACGIH TLVs.

    I have seen bits and pieces of this in the news, but not like when Nike was busted using deplorable working conditions for their over seas production.

    Installing nets is CHEAPER, EASIER, and QUICKER than fixing the problem!!! Just shameful that some of the highest tech USA based companies are involved in this.
    By Bryan Haywood Founder & President of SAFTENG.net
    \”

    1. Ross, thanks for the link.

      As far as I know there has been no public link between the suicide victims and the specific work tasks undertaken. In fact, I would suggest that the opposite is likely as there are reports that salary levels have been increased in order to improve the workers\’ standard of living. This is a dubious move but it certainly has not been hinted that this could be \”danger money\” for working with hazardous substances.

      It should be noted that in the last few months there have been chemical-related issues reported in similar Chinese IT manufacturing premises for Samsung products. There are reports about a cancer cluster in one factory – http://tinyurl.com/37jcupo.

      Brian\’s comments on US companies echo some of the concerns I raised.

  4. Kevin,

    You ask an important question, and one that should be answered better by those in the media who are covering the event.

    to answer your core question, Apple vs. Foxconn, you need to first decide on the context by which you want to answer the question.

    First, if you are going to confine your question to the recent Foxconn suicides, then the problem is one of Foxconn, but is also the responsibility of Apple, HP, Motorola, and others to investigate and respond.

    However, if you take a step back and look at Foxconn as a supplier of Apple, and then focus your efforts on Apple, then it is clear that Apple\’s own supply chain (which includes Foxconn) also has multiple issues which must be immediately addressed. Supplier Responsibility reports aside, it was only 2 months ago that 100 of their line workers in a Wintek facility were hospitalized for n-Hexane exposure while cleaning the iTouch screens. A supplier that has had multiple, public, issues with back pay, overtime, and working conditions.

    Both are supply chains with problems, both involve Apple, but neither are being framed in the right context. Which is only serving the likes of Apple and Foxconn as they \”investigate\” the problems and announce their \”solutions\”

    R

  5. I beleive that, even though the suicides came along with the iPad, it\’s a problem of all related companies: Dell, Nintendo, Nokia, Motorola… But mostly it\’s a problem of Foxconn. Buyers of this company can pressure it to change but let\’s not diverge the main problem wich is Foxconn\’s.
    All these questions should be restated: \”Is satisfying the consumerist need of Westerners for iPads/DELL COMPUTERS/MOTOROLA AND NOKIA CELLPHONES an “unusual or emergency circumstance”? Would Apple/DELL /MOTOROLA/NOKIA consider applying “fair trade” conditions to its PRODUCTS? Would Apple’s/DELL\’S /MOTOROLA\’S/NOKIA\’S Code even meet fair trade conditions?\”
    And also here: \”The suicides should prick our consciences when we lust over an iPhone or an iPad/OR A DELL COMPUTER/OR A MOTOROLA OR NOKIA CELLPHONE.
    Let\’s be fair.

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