13 Suicides This Year in the World’s Biggest Factory

June 11, 2010 9:00 am Last Updated: June 11, 2010 12:44 pm

On May 21 before dawn, logistics worker Nan Gang leapt to his death from atop a building backing onto a courtyard in the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen; he was rushed to the hospital but died. Police said Nan Gang owed a few thousands yuan in gambling debts, and had hired thugs to punish his fellow workers, but instead was extorted by the thugs; he was furious, and once threatened retaliation. He also revealed suicidal thoughts. Nan Gang’s monthly wages were between 1,000 and 2,000 yuan (between US$146 and US$292).

“He felt that since childhood no one loved him dearly, and there was a recent incident in the family; he took it hard,” according to one of his co-workers. Nan Gang was a single-child whose parents separated, and his closest relative had recently run away from home. His previous girlfriend last year went home and married someone else, and a later girlfriend never came back to the factory after going home for the May 1st holiday. These also impacted heavily on Nan Gang.

Over the last few months the suicides at Foxconn Technology Group, a fortune 500 company, where eleven have died and two injured, have attracted enormous attention from around the world. The string of apparent suicides mostly involved 18 to 24 year old, the oldest being no more than 27, and all of them having been in Foxconn from between 18 days to 6 months.

Taiwanese businessman Terry Gou founded Foxconn in China in 1988, after building close relationships with high-level cadres in the Chinese Communist Party. The venture was extremely successful. Foxconn is currently the largest assembling factory in the world, whose products include Apple’s iPhone and iPod, Nokia cell phones, Hewlett Packard computers, Sony Playstations, and Olympus cameras. In 2009 the company’s income was US$61 billion. In China the company employs 800,000 workers, 400,000 of them in the developed city of Shenzhen.

On the evening of May 14, the 21-year-old Chao Liang jumped to his death from the roof of the seven-floor dormitory at Foxconn’s Longhua complex; a few hours later Chao Liang’s mother, father and relatives rushed from Anhui to take care of the funeral arrangements. The bereavement led his parents to not eat anything for three days, to sleeping three and four hours per night, to relying on an intravenous drip to sustain life, and to weeping with grief day and night.

“Usually, when not working, it’s sleeping,” Chao Liang said of his experience of Foxconn. His family didn’t find anything amiss, but his jump to death broke their hearts. Chao’s family members considered that, given Foxconn’s immense size, the job was something to brag about in their home village. Last year after beginning work, for example, Chao Liang went home and took some money back to help his family to build a house.

The seventh to jump was university graduate Lu Xin. University friends would later describe him on blogs as: “Fortune’s favorite” who escaped the life of farm toil, the pride of the family, the rock of the family, city dreamer, a failed struggler, a production-line worker, someone with spiritual problems, a suicide case, a happy man who once harbored “dreams of music,” and one now who “all has passed away.”

The others who jumped to their deaths were: Zhu Chenming who killed herself on May 11 because of emotional difficulties, also in Longhua; the 18 year old Ms. Ning who jumped from the Guanlan factory dormitory on April 7; Ms. Rao, a 19 year old who jumped out of a building and was injured in Guanlan on April 6; an unnamed 23 year old male worker who jumped to his death on March 29; Ms. Tian, who killed herself by jumping, at Longhua, because “living is too tiring”; Mr. Li, who was over 20, and who also jumped to his death at Longhua on March 11; Ma Xiang, a 19 year old who jumped to his death at the South China training dormitory.

Some had encountered setbacks in love and relationships; some had heard of news of deaths in the family; some suffered depression which led to their tragic ends. Nevertheless, all were identical in one way: new workers in their late teens or early 20s, all from rural households.

China currently has 150 million migrant workers from the countryside; close to 100 million, or 60 percent, were born in the 1980s and 1990s. These individuals make up 85 percent of the workforce at Foxconn.

“Too tired, too lonely,” is how Xiao Wang described the reason he left Foxconn. At the beginning he was attracted by the enormous scale of 400,000 workers and the magnitude of factory that is like a city. But within a month of the “Foxconn method,” his hopes of enjoying that working life were dashed. Every day Xiao Wang would work four hours overtime, with each month over 100 hours overtime; his monthly pay was around US$300.

“Foxconn is too big, walking the street when getting off and going to work feels too lonely and helpless,” the 24 year old Xiao Wang explained. The pressure was too great, he said. Being one of 400,000 workers in the same uniform made him feel insignificant and like a stranger. Every day going back to his dorm he would traverse a long corridor of closed doors, returning to his room of 10 coworkers, who occupied themselves individually, did not speak to one another, and didn’t even know one another’s full names.

In Chinese industry, Foxconn’s working conditions are in the upper tier, relatively speaking. On May 17 when the company was looking for workers in southern China, 2,000 young people waited expectantly for an interview. Despite the domestic media’s consistent reporting on the string of suicides, each day thousands presented themselves for an opportunity to be employed.

Sun Yanjun, previously the associate professor at the Department of Psychology of the Capital Normal University, and who now resides in the United States, believes that Foxconn should genuinely reflect on the suicides. But he adds that Foxconn is not an exceptional case. “Low-pay and inhumane management are extremely common in Chinese industry; it aggravates the tensions extant in society, increases the gap between rich and poor, and leads the Chinese masses to develop psychological problems. Although over the last two years the suicides at Foxconn have aroused attention, that suicide rate is one-quarter of the suicide rate in China.”

This article was first translated for beforeitsnews.com.