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Worker suicides focus attention on electronics factories

June 30, 2010

Over the past few weeks, a string of suicides in a Foxconn export factory in Shenzhen, China has brought world-wide attention to working conditions in the factories where modern electronics are made. Twelve suicides have been reported so far in 2010.

Workers at Foxconn face grueling work conditions: excessive forced overtime, extremely low pay, unattainable productivity targets, and a harsh and isolating management system –workers on the shop floor are not even allowed to speak to each other during their 12-14 hour work day! More than 300,000 workers live inside the factory walls, their lives completely controlled by Foxconn.

Foxconn responded to the suicides by blaming the victims. Foxconn’s CEO, Terry Gou, asserted that workers were committing suicide to get compensation for their families. Instead of improving working conditions, Foxconn installed nets around dormitories and buildings, brought in dancers and computers to entertain workers, and demanded that workers sign a contract swearing they will not commit suicide and that they will report anyone who is struggling with mental health problems.

Though Foxconn is responsible for the conditions in the factory, the bigger culprits in these suicides are the brand names that Foxconn supplies – Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, and Motorola – which demand cheaper and cheaper labor.

A Hong Kong-based group, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) has been spearheading the movement to bring the working conditions in Foxconn to light. SACOM is demanding the company reform its management methods, permit workers to form trade unions through democratic election, and asking that the brands change their purchasing model to end the “race to the bottom” which leads to these inhuman working conditions.

Apple, one of Foxconn’s main buyers, launched its 4th generation of iPhone amidst the horror of these continued suicides. But even as Apple’s CEO, Steve Jobs, declared that Apple suppliers were not sweatshops, a worker at Foxconn died of exhaustion after working 34 hours straight with no breaks! To increase the pressure on Foxconn and the corporations it supplies, SACOM urges you to sign a petition and to boycott Foxconn’s products.

Sadly, Foxconn is not alone when it comes to unhealthy and unsafe work conditions – factory workers all around the world sacrifice their lives and health for our electronics (see the Samsung case in Korea, the RCA case in Taiwan, and the IBM case in the U.S.).

Hesperian is currently developing a book to help make accessible knowledge and techniques workers can use to organize for safer and healthier working conditions, both in and out of the workplace. You can read more about our ongoing book project, A Worker’s Guide to Health and Safety on our website.