Electronics manufacturing’s encroaching dark side casts shadow on iPhone splendor

Shenzen plant workers manufacturing electronics devices. Photo: ECVV.com

Another Foxconn employee at the Shenzhen plant is dead after falling off a building this Tuesday morning.

With a total workforce in China numbering 800,000, Foxconn is the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer; making devices for leading global electronics brands like Apple and the iPhone.  Shenzhen police confirmed the death, and it’s still under investigation as a possible suicide.  Nine people have died this year in a series of “incidents” among workers, with two failed suicide attempts.

The 300,000 workers at the Shenzhen plant are paid the minimum wage and regularly work heavy overtime.   The iPhone, as the most publicly visible product is under threat of boycott from labour activists in Hong Kong.  Betty Chan of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour said her group was in touch with activists in Europe over an international boycott campaign against the iPhone from next month.

Terry Gou, founder and chairman of Hon Hai, the Taiwanese parent company of Foxconn, held a press conference at the company’s Longhua plant on Wednesday, after a hurried arrival at Shenzhen to deal with the suicide crisis.   “We are definitely not a sweatshop,” Mr Gou said on Sunday. “At this stage we can only quietly do our job and not make any comments about this issue.  So we will do our best” to improve the situation. “A manufacturing team of 800,000 people is not easy to manage,” he added.

Foxconn has taken steps to set up new counselling and early warning systems, measures that have garnered support from psychiatrists “At least, here’s a company that’s doing something about it,” said Michael Phillips, director of the Suicide Research and Prevention Center at Shanghai Mental Health Center and a professor at Emory University School of Medicine. He also said the suicides appeared to have a “strong imitation factor.”

But labour activists called for more decisive action from the company. “The wages of these workers should be raised to decent levels so they won’t feel they need to rely on overtime,” said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin. “That would give them time to socialize, relax and work through whatever issues they have.”


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