Update: When I started this post yesterday, only 11 jumps had occurred. Apparently, three to four more have happened since. The numbering is a bit unclear at this point and news about the latest suicides seem to be getting harmonized.
Several readers, both in our comments and through other channels, have expressed an interest in reading what we have to say about the Foxconn suicides that have repeatedly made headlines so far this year. It’s flattering. Unfortunately, one of the reasons I personally haven’t written much about them is because I simply don’t know what’s going on. In fact, I don’t think anyone really does at this point. Those that may know, aren’t telling, or those that are telling are doing so in a way where what they’re telling can’t be reliably verified.
It’s hard to say what’s going on but it is incredibly easy to say what we want to believe is going on…that being that China is an terrible terrible place where people suffer, die, and commit suicide because China is greedy, exploitative, violent, corrupt, backwards, uncivilized, communist, Chinese, and/or “not us”. From what I see, there’s more speculation based upon circumstantial “evidence” than there is information about the nine people who have died and the two that have tried (see update above).
Let’s take a look at some of the common angles, the popular narratives, we’re seeing:
“Foxconn is like this because Apple is so secretive”
This angle got its legs last July following the suicide of a 25-year-old male worker accused of stealing an iPhone prototype. It remains popular amongst a tech crowd that is both familiar and critical of Apple’s secretive — but thus far successful — ways. There are quite a few calls for boycotting popular Apple products like the iPhone and new iPad.
For those who aren’t already aware, Apple designs its products but outsources the actual manufacturing of said products to manufacturers like Foxconn, who actually manufacture electronics for many of the world’s leading brands including Dell and HP. Its role is to do all the menial, repetitive, boring work, and get none of the glory. There’s nothing exactly wrong with that. It’s called division of labor and comparative advantage. Remember those terms?
The idea of blaming and boycotting Apple, of course, is that doing so may motivate Apple to do something or another with Foxconn that will hopefully put a stop to these deaths, whether they are due to Foxconn enforcement of Apple policies or Foxconn behaving badly on its own without Apple’s knowledge. If Foxconn doesn’t care about its public image, it may care about what its client Apple thinks, and Apple should care about its public image. Remember Nike?
The problem with this narrative is that we don’t actually know to what extent all of these suicides have anything at all to do with Apple, its products, or its secrecy policies. Those who don’t use Apple products are going to feel smug about themselves, and those who abstain from purchasing one will feel like they’ve done something meaningful…when neither is really demonstrated to be doing anything at all to avert suicides.
“Chinese run sweatshops”
Of course the Chinese run sweatshops. How else do you think everything is so damn cheap? Do you expect them to give up the business to the Vietnamese? It’s better to earn little than nothing at all, and that’s how the world works.
Right, the issue here isn’t that life is tough for the poor and unskilled, but the idea that Foxconn must either be doing something really inexcusably wrong that is leading to people’s deaths or they’re not be doing everything they should to avoid these deaths. There seems to be a lot of legitimate speculation about the first, mostly involving heavy-handed security and internal management policies, tactics, or abuses. The latter is a bit harder to pin down because it is all too easy to say “well, they could’ve done more!” More what? Suspending or firing security guards found to be in violation of company policies? Onsite psychiatrists and peer counselors? Nets around the dorms to catch anyone falling off of them? Employment letters that include explicit waivers to remind you that Foxconn isn’t going to be easy target for suicide ploys intended to extract a windfall for loved ones?
Custer’s earlier post addresses how useless the waiver is in the face of suicides springing from genuine mental and emotional causes. I personally suspect the waivers are about Foxconn trying to cover one of the possible reasons for these suicides that has already been speculated by many, that the suicides are about some kids looking to exchange their lives so their parents or families can get something out of a large company. It’s a variant of collecting on life insurance. Sure, these waivers may make Foxconn look insensitive and only concerned with what they might legally be on the hook for, but I wouldn’t underestimate the effect of explicitly telling someone that “your possible suicide isn’t going to benefit anyone.”
Working conditions and environments for many of China’s workforce isn’t pretty, especially compared to what many in the more developed and affluent West are accustomed to. However true this is, we still don’t know if it is some unifying cause for these deaths. It is a side narrative that plays to what we already believe about China and the Chinese leading us to link it to the suicides regardless of whether there is a real link or not. The link is in our heads, only because it’s plausible.
“This is not statistically abnormal”
Foxconn is a huge employer, employing hundreds of thousands of people in its factories and offices throughout China. If the World Health Organization pegs China’s national suicide rate at 14 individuals per 100,000 people, is it so odd that there have been nine suicides and two attempts (see above update) amongst Foxconn employees when just their Shenzhen factory alone employs around 400,000 people? Just going by their Shenzhen location alone, they’re far behind the curve with nearly half of the year under their belt.
They’re also far behind many other companies, like maybe France Télécom?
At least 46 France Télécom employees have committed suicide since January 2008, according to the company, including 11 this year. […]
The World Health Organization estimated the suicide rate in France in 2005 at 26.4 per 100,000 for men and 9.2 for women. — France Télécom employs about 102,000 people in France.
…from a March 10, 2010 New York Times article.
The reason that Stephanie’s death shone light on to the dark side of the French psyche is that she worked for France Télécom — and that 22 other employees of the telecommunications group have killed themselves over the past 18 months. […]
But amid a frenzied debate, the more thoughtful commentators pointed out that the suicide rate among France Télécom’s 102,000 French employees was 15.3 a year — alarmingly high, but not significantly higher than the national rate of 14.7 for 100,000 people.
…from a September 23, 2009 article in The Times.
The point here isn’t to say Foxconn is better than other companies or other companies are worse than Foxconn1. The point here is to bring some perspective when it is understandably difficult for many people to imagine a company the size of Foxconn. They think, “Oh my god, nine deaths in a single company?! There must be something wrong!” Uh, there may indeed be something wrong, but it may not necessarily be some overarching, interconnected, conspiratorial web of intrigue. Hold your horses.
When a string of similar events happen, it is natural — even smart — to look for commonalities and correlations while seeking the causes. But, as we all should’ve learned sometime in our primary education years, correlation does not imply causation. Do we have any real solid leads on what could be any single cause behind each of these Foxconn deaths? Could the causes be different? If they are, to what extent can we really hold Foxconn and/or Apple accountable, responsible, liable? To what extent do we blame them? To what extent do we blame the individuals directly involved themselves, whether they be sinister security guards or managers covering up after their misdeeds or forlorn to misguided youth?
I don’t know. Do you?