Foxconn Suicides: Common Narratives But Uncertain Causes

Foxconn logo.

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:

WWDC - Steve Jobs, Top Secret

“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.

Foxconn worker looking weary.

“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?

Foxconn suicide waiver.

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”

Suicide infographic - developed nations.

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?

Update: Two good posts from Roland at ESWN.


  1. Or that Foxconn is doing better than all 50 American states. []


23 Comments

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  1. Lolz

    Infographics ftw.

    Agreed on the whole notion that china itself is not a gigantic sweatshop. You often hear the westerners (usually the bloody ipad carrying liberals or the union ppl) complain about how Chinese are working on slave wage. The fact of the matter is that 3usd per day is actually somewhat livable in china, as most of these ppl are given free housing and meals. A sadder truth is that even if china is a gigantic sweatshop as long as consumers around the world are price conscious, companies which try to do the “right thing” will have to deal with higher overheads and thus will have to work much harder and smarter to effectively compete.

  2. Kai.

    In an attempt to answer the question of Apple’s role, and the focus that it is currently receiving as part of the Foxconn suicides.

    In fact, I would agree that there is a problem insofar as many in the media are not fully seperating the issues that exist (those that are Foxconn’s, those that are Apple’s, and those where there is overlap).

    Here is how I would break it down:

    1) Fox­conn — For the obvi­ous rea­son that there are now 10+ employ­ees who have jumped to their death

    2) Foxconn’s Cus­tomers (Apple, HP, Dell, MOtorola, Nokia, and oth­ers) — As a group, they must now act. The time for cur­sory ““inves­ti­ga­tions” are over, and while Fox­conn may have each of them by the balls, they can act col­lec­tively to reverse the equation

    3) Apple — Apple, and more specif­i­cally its China based (Tai­wanese man­aged) sup­ply chain is toxic beyond Fox­conn. Remem­ber those 100 employ­ees who were recently exposed to n-Hexane? Or how about the strike at the SAME Win­tek facil­ity in Jan­u­ary over back pay? Or how about the issue of under­age labor, or the fact that half of their sup­pli­ers DO NOT COMPLY with local envi­ron­men­tal standards.

    It is a set of stake­hold­ers that is com­plex, and I think the media would be best to focus on the fact that there are two dif­fer­ent issues to be resolved: (1) Fox­conn sui­cides and (2) Apple’s wider sup­ply chain problems

    One final point I would like to make before wrapping this up. Why I myself believe that Apple has itself closer to the train than Nokia, HP, Motorola, and the others is that fact that they have tried to hold themselves above everyone else.

    Look at the first paragraph of their 2009 Supplier Responsibility report (and the first paragraph of their Supplier Responsibility Website), and you will see the following “Apple is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility wherever our products are made. We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes.”

    A high bar to live up to when you have Foxconn and Wintek as your suppliers, and have a consistent pattern of labor and environmental issues within your supply chain.

    r

    • Richard,

      I’m not really sure Foxconn has Apple and etc. “by the balls”. I’m inclined to think they both depend on each other to some significant degree without suggesting either partner has the upper hand in the relationship. My main point here, which I think you agree with, is to just review some of the popular narratives surrounding the Foxconn suicides and how none of them are answering all the questions.

      Regarding Apple itself, I think your criticisms are warranted in of themselves, but I want to separate them from being inappropriately muddled with the causes for all these apparent suicides.

      • KAi

        They have them by the balls. HP, Dell, and Nintendo perhaps not as they own their own facilities (still), but Apple is 100% reliant upon Foxconn.

        Foxconn assembles, sourced and manages key components, and any move away from Foxconn would require a significant rewiring of their supply chain.

        Apple is reportedly less than 10% of Foxconn, and assuming Foxconn could contain the losses there, they would be fine. Yes, it would be a loss, but not a catastrophic one.

        Which is why I believe the best way for Apple, and other Foxconn customers, to move forward is to work together like you see in apparel and toys buyers. They set a common code of conduct, share intelligence on visits, and have a “all or nothing approach”.

        … and I agree, the Foxconn suicides and Apple’s general problems should remain separate. Muddling them together is not in the best interest of anyone.

        • Richard,

          Glad we agree on the suicide angle.

          On the Foxconn vs. Apple ball-gripping, you may better versed in this than I am so entertain my musings as you will. The way I understand it is that Apple tells Foxconn what they want and Foxconn has to come up with the most efficient SOPs to produce what Apple wants at a price Apple will pay and at a profit for themselves. To me, the bulk of the hard work and liability is on Foxconn with the bulk of the profit on Apple. Assuming this, I imagine Apple could walk away easier to a competing manufacturer given its higher profit margins whereas Foxconn with its much narrower margins would have more trouble even while it has multiple other customers.

          Foxconn is tooled to meet Apple’s demand, and losing Apple’s demand means a lot of retooling and reorganization for them, whereas Apple may have to endure product manufacturing delays but is essentially able to take their designs and shop Foxconns competitors. It’s a big contract, a big account, and many other OEM manufacturers would lust after the chance. There’s an argument to be made that Foxconn is the best match, best equipped to handle Apple’s desired volume but…

          So, I’m still seeing the divorce being pretty messy for both without either being able to control the other. Again, though, I know this is probably an area of expertise for you so I may not be aware of or seeing every angle accurately on the Foxconn-Apple supply chain issue. Maybe other people here can chime in on what they know? It’s an interesting discussion in of itself, if not proximate to the suicides.

          • Kai

            In theory you would be right were this a commodity, or a simple item.

            The reality though is that there are three reasons for Apple’s bind:

            1) Foxconn now owns a significant portion of Apple’s overall volume, so it would not have to shop around for one product, but for many

            2) All that tooling take time, and Foxconn is one of the few (I have heard there are only 3-4 groups) who can manage the volume

            3) The supply base is largely Taiwanese. Burn Foxconn. Find your own component suppliers.

            To give you an idea of how long it would take to start something (from scratch), I once used to source a very simple hand tool called a trowl (think stucco or drywall). To get the product moving, it took 6 months. It takes time to set up tools, machines, supply lines, and get people trained… and that was a product that has almost no real tolerance concerns.

            So, for Apple, pulling away would be a HUGE event.

            Which is why they should have taken my advice 2 years ago, when I began posting about the Foxconn/ Apple issue, and diversified their supplier base from the start.

          • Richard,

            Thanks for the follow-up, and I can definitely imagine the major prohibitive hassles involved in switching suppliers. Understanding that scenario, do you think Foxconn and Apple both see it as you do? I mean, do you think Foxconn agrees it is in a position of power and Apple fears likewise?

          • Kai

            I read an article that came out recently about aninternal debate occuring at Apple following the suicide last year (over the lost iPhone prototype), and they basically came to the conclusion they were stuck.

            .. and they STILL gave Foxconn the iPad.

            … so, not much sympathy from me

  3. Jones

    I already told you. It’s the florescent lighting.

  4. hm

    Definitely agree that there aren’t enough solid facts or pieces of information out there letting people know what’s really going on.

    Foxconn will never be able to regain their image if they don’t take ‘responsibility’ for their actions. I don’t hear anyone from Foxconn claiming responsibility for these suicides. Foxconn’s stance seems to be, “it’s not our fault, don’t look at us. They’re the ones who want to commit suicide!”

  5. Maotai

    Numbers, just numbers.

    I have to agree that given the large number of Foxconn employees, the number of suicides is not abnormally high.

    I also suspect that the local media has played this up for various reasons.

    • Maotai.

      Perhaps I would be convinced if you actually provided a factual/ number based analysis that would show the 10 suicides were statistically less than an appropriate comparable.

      Note: An annual average of China’s suicide rate is NOT an appropriate number.. regardless of how many times it is quoted by the media.

      Beyond the fact that it includes all age groups, and is an ANNUAL number vs. 3 weeks, the fact that Foxconn is not actually a representative sample of China has escaped many..

      I look forward to your factual analysis, and conclusions.

      • Richard, I definitely agree that comparing national suicide rates with Foxconn suicide rates is an imperfect comparison and Roland has a good post that quickly illuminates that on ESWN. However, I’d argue that it is still useful to break people out of the “omg, its how many suicides in a single company?!?” mindset. The whole point is to take a step back and look closer before jumping to conclusions about what may be a unifying cause.

        Frankly, I like the France Telecom comparison better. It is at least slightly more comparable with it dealing specifically with workers inside a single company.

        Oh, and I don’t think anyone is using Foxconn as a representative sample of China, are they?

        • Kai.

          My point was really that the current comparisons are the rate of suicide at Foxconn is less than China average.

          So, yes, they are trying to say that Foxconn is somehow a representative sample of China.

          Were they removing the non-relevant age groups, and adjusting for time, and looking at the rate of suicides within a SINGLE location given all the above.. then, they would be accurately adjusting and it is only at that point that you could make a fair analysis of whether or not Foxconn’s rate of suicide is, or is not, too high.

          Anything else is random guessing at best…

          R

          • Richard,

            I’m confused. How does saying that Foxconn’s suicide rate is less than the WHO rate for China as a nation = Foxconn’s suicide rate is a representative sample of China?

            The former is saying, here’s A and B, and B is less than A. The second is saying B is representative of A. Those are two very different assertions to me.

            I agree with you that the comparison is not nearly accurate for determining what is or is not “too high” (relative to what, right?), but I don’t see how anyone is saying “Foxconn is somehow a representative sample of China”. I haven’t heard or read anyone suggesting that nor do I think a comparison of two statistics implies that.

          • Kai

            for some reason I cannot reply to your comment, so I just clarify mine.

            Tehre are media reports, and comments, saying that Foxconn’s suicide rate is less than the national average.

            By doing that, and in order to make that leap, they are not trying to adjust the national average to compare to Foxconn, but are trying to stretch the Foxconn numbers to be a comparable subset of the national average.

            To make this leap in statistics work, Foxconn therefor is being treated as equal to the national average, but with fewer people.

            … which you and I agree is an incorrect assumption.

          • Richard,

            The comments only nest 5 levels so beyond the 5th level, you need to hit reply to the last 4th level comment. There has to be a limit to nesting or else the comment width would just become incredibly tiny!

            Okay, I kinda see why you’re saying what you’re saying.

      • maotai

        As Kai Pan has suggested, please read Roland’s take on this. He is a professional statistician and is quite clear how the numbers should be read.

  6. Goodness

    Hmm it looks like someones spooked by all this.

    Hon Hai to raise China wages after spate of suicides

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37392216/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/

Continuing the Discussion