The minute you hear the word Foxconn, you think of the terribly frequent incidents of suicides committed by the workers. The suicide rate in China is one of the highest anywhere on the planet, but that doesn’t justify the mass suicide of Apple employees working for the most successful businesses of all time. But why?
Foxconn’s Longhua plant is one of the major manufacturers of Apple products, and probably the most infamous one for ghastly reasons. This, in turns, also makes it the most secretive and sealed-off plants with warning signs of “This factory area is legally established with state approval. Unauthorized trespassing is prohibited. Offenders will be sent to police for prosecution!” accompanied by security guards and cameras fixed at each entry point.
Almost every iPhone component and part’s final assembly is based here, courtesy low labor costs and a huge number of highly skilled workforce. So when one sees the label, “Designed in California, Assembled in China” behind an iPhone, thanks to over 99 million factory workers in the country. According to a survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2009, China became the world’s second-largest economy. The Taiwanese Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd, also known as Foxconn, is the biggest employer in China with over 1.3 million people on its payroll.
But behind all these staggering numbers, lies a very sorry story of overworked, unpaid, and depressed employees who are being worked to the bone and consequently have been using the last resort of suicide to voice their outrage and protest.
The first and still the largest of Foxconn’s facility is a 1.4 square-mile flagship plant situated just outside Shenzhen. The factory once had over 450,000 workers, this number is smaller today but the site remains one of the largest assembly operations in the world. But most of us know about this facility, thanks to the 2010 Longhua assembly-line workers suicides, who began to throw themselves off dorm buildings, racking up 18 reported suicide attempts in that year causing 14 deaths. Fortunately, 20 more workers did the same but were saved before they took the fateful leap.
Brian Merchant, a renowned blogger, has recently published his revealing book titled “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone” where he blows the whistle on the story of how he accessed the heavily guarded iPhone manufacturing complex. He encountered unhappy workers and jotted down the ground breaking inside scoops to help the world understand the monstrosities occurring inside the building.
He translates an interview with a Foxconn worker in his book,
“The first people we stop at turn out to be a pair of former Foxconn workers.
“It’s not a good place for human beings,” says one of the young men, who goes by the name Xu. He’d worked in Longhua for about a year, until a couple of months ago, and he says the conditions inside are as bad as ever.
“There is no improvement since the media coverage,” Xu says. The work is very high pressure and he and his colleagues regularly logged 12-hour shifts. Management is both aggressive and duplicitous, publicly scolding workers for being too slow and making them promises they don’t keep, he says. His friend, who worked at the factory for two years and chooses to stay anonymous, says he was promised double pay for overtime hours but got only regular pay. They paint a bleak picture of a high-pressure working environment where exploitation is routine and where depression and suicide have become normalized.
“It wouldn’t be Foxconn without people dying,” Xu says. “Every year people kill themselves. They take it as a normal thing.”
Merchant claims he interviewed several workers working in the facility, but often they were people coming out of their 12-hour shifts, not very inclined to talk with anyone out of fear of losing their jobs or simply because they were too tired. He writes how the workers lasted not more than a year at the facility due to high stress, abusive management, and non-conducive working culture.
“Almost everywhere, people said the workforce was young and turnover was high. “Most employees last only a year,” was a common refrain. Perhaps that’s because the pace of work is widely agreed to be relentless, and the management culture is often described as cruel.”
“Failing to meet a quota or making a mistake can draw public condemnation from superiors. Workers are often expected to stay silent and may draw rebukes from their bosses for asking to use the restroom.”
Another employee had this to say,
“It’s insulting and humiliating to people all the time. Punish someone to make an example for everyone else. It’s systematic,” he adds. In certain cases, if a manager decides that a worker has made an especially costly mistake, the worker has to prepare a formal apology. “They must read a promise letter aloud – ‘I won’t make this mistake again’– to everyone.”
There was a time when all these incidents of scores of suicides took the news headlines and rocked the companies involved. But now, even the deaths of workers have been normalized, both by the company management and the media alike
Xu, a worker at the facility notes,
“Here someone dies, one day later the whole thing doesn’t exist,” his friend says. “You forget about it.”
In 2012, 150 workers threatened to jump off the rooftop, only to be brought down after promises of improvements. In 2016, another group did it again, and even a few months ago seven or eight workers assembled on a rooftop and threatened to kill themselves if they weren’t paid the wages they were due.
The management’s response to all this? Installing anti-suicide nets all around the facility to catch falling employees.
This is not shocking when you put the following cold and heartless statements by former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, in context.
‘We look at everything at these companies,” Steve Jobs said after news of the suicides broke. “Foxconn is not a sweatshop. It’s a factory – but my gosh, they have restaurants and movie theaters… but it’s a factory. But they’ve had some suicides and attempted suicides – and they have 400,000 people there. The rate is under what the US rate is, but it’s still troubling.”