Foxconn Suicides: Plenty of Harm, but No Foul?

April 14, 2010

What with the thinly-veiled erotic pleasure that many early adopters of the iPad are experiencing these days, it is with some trepidation that I bring up the topic of the travails of one of Apple’s hardware suppliers in China, Foxconn.

Foxconn has had lots of problems lately, mostly due, as you can imagine, to the recent suicides of several of its workers. Shaun Rein, in his Forbes column, lays a lot of the blame on Apple:

In the drive for ever fatter margins and lower product prices, Steve Jobs and Apple have forgotten to protect the quality of life of workers at Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that manufactures products for them and other companies like Hewlett-Packard and Dell. This year alone five Foxconn workers in China have committed suicide. Last year a worker killed himself after security officers accused him of stealing a prototype of an Apple iPhone and beat him. When a Reuters journalist tried, legally, to take photos of a Foxconn factory a few months ago, security guards ran out and beat him.

Every month, it seems, more horror stories emerge from Foxconn’s factories.

Yes, it’s a rather gruesome story, and Apple certainly does bear some responsibility as one of Foxconn’s major customers. On the other hand, HP and Dell shouldn’t be let off the hook. Either way, most of our scorn should be directed towards Foxconn, whose labor practices apparently fostered an environment in which several workers killed themselves and others were injured (a total of six this year).

Rein sees the situation with Foxconn and Apple as a teachable moment (I usually hate that term, but it seems to fit here):

We all can learn a lot from Apple’s Foxconn problems. Executives in charge of supply chain management can no longer concern themselves with low prices and high quality alone. They absolutely must make sure their partners take care of their employees and protect the environment.

I’d certainly go along with that, and even add other issues like intellectual property protection to matters that multinationals should put on their third party audit “To Do” list. This is all well and good as a learning tool; perhaps other workers will benefit from safer work environments as a result.

But what about those suicides? If there are lessons to be learned by MNCs, surely Foxconn should go to remedial summer school, and be forced to do so if necessary, for a refresher course on good labor practices. A famous person once justified ignoring a particularly heinous crime by saying: “This is a time for reflection, not retribution.” Well, screw that guy for saying that. A little retribution is perfectly appropriate once in a while. So what’s going to happen to Foxconn?

As it turns out, excellent news on that front. Following these tragic suicides, an intensive investigation of Foxconn’s facilities was conducted by the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions. I feel better already. Surely a body charged with protecting the rights of workers would leave no stone unturned, and pull no punches in its final report? Full steam ahead. I smell justice!

Well, not so much. Today’s China Daily:

The local trade unions federation has urged Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwan-funded electronic manufacturing giant, to take care of the psychological needs of its huge number of young employees following a string of suicides.

Immediate investigations by the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions found no breach of laws and that Foxconn had adopted “necessary and timely measures” following the incidents, Wang Tongxin, the federation’s vice-chairman, said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

However, he noted, both the suicides and attempted suicides exposed defects in the company’s management system and philosophy, particularly where the changing demands of a new generation of workers was concerned.

If this was a videoblog, you would have just seen me do a spit take. It’s not that I’m surprised – Foxconn is probably the biggest employer down there and must garner big time cooperation from the government. I didn’t expect that they would be shut down or anything.

On the other hand, seeing that conclusion in black and white like that is not helping me to keep my blood pressure under control (in addition to my medication, that is). The labor union criticized Foxconn’s labor practices only in the mildest terms:

Foxconn “developed a kind of quasi-military management system”, which, along with tight production schedules, emphasized assessments that were at odds with a new generation of workers who cared more about their quality of life than their parents.

Please. I’ve worked for partners at law firms that believed in a military style of management, and while I might have contemplated a violent act once or twice, I didn’t act on my frustrations. I do believe that the situation at Foxconn was more serious that than innocuous description lets on.

The labor union will reportedly move on now to do a survey of workers in Shenzhen in order to determine how many residents are afflicted with this “common social problem.” You always know when a government wants to bury something; it always calls for further study.

Very disappointing outcome. Yet another epic fail by a local government.