By David Barboza DAVID BARBOZA
With about 800,000 Chinese employees, revenue of about $60 billion a year and a reputation for military-style efficiency, Foxconn is possibly the world’s biggest electronics maker. It is now also the focus of troubling questions about a wave of suicides among its workers at a pair of factories here that serve as major suppliers to global brands like Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.
As part of a hastily assembled, carefully orchestrated news conference and tour led by Mr. Gou on Wednesday, Foxconn executives defended their labor practices, even as they vowed to do everything possible to prevent more young people from taking their own lives. And the company presented a panel of mental health professionals to discuss the likely causes of suicide in China generally.
And perhaps in a sign of desperation, the company said it had even begun putting safety nets up on factory buildings to deter suicide attempts. (Not soon enough in at least one case, apparently. Hours after the news conference, another Foxconn employee fell to his death from one of the complex’s buildings, according to the official news agency Xihuan, although it was not immediately known whether it was an accident or suicide.)
“We’re reviewing everything,” said Mr. Gou, whose Taiwanese company controls Foxconn Technology, which operates two sprawling factories here with about 420,000 employees.
Sensing a public relations fiasco and questions from Foxconn suppliers, Mr. Gou traveled here Wednesday from Taiwan on what company executives said was an emergency trip. “We will leave no stone unturned and we’ll make sure to find a way to reduce these suicide tendencies,” Mr. Gou said.
Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, whose own corporate images are at risk from the suicides, say they, too, are now investigating conditions at Foxconn.
Mr. Gou, the 59-year-old founder of Foxconn and its Taiwanese parent company, the Hon Hai Group, sought to calm growing concerns that Foxconn’s labor practices and highly regimented operations are to blame for the rash of suicides on its two Shenzhen campuses this year.
The most recent confirmed suicide took place early Tuesday, when a 19-year-old employee fell to his death here. It was the 9th Foxconn suicide this year, police officials say, and the 11th time an employee at one of Foxconn’s two Shenzhen campuses attempted suicide. Two workers who survived suicide attempts suffered serious injuries.
In an interview Wednesday, Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, said his company was “saddened and upset” by the suicides and that Apple was determined to ensure that Foxconn workers were treated with respect and dignity. The company, whose popular iPod is among the products made by Foxconn, has conducted labor audits of the company in the past and sought improvements.
But questions about Foxconn’s labor practices have lingered. At a separate news conference late Wednesday, Shenzhen city officials suggested that the company was partly to blame for the accidents, although they offered few details.
And several labor rights groups are calling for an independent investigation into the deaths and labor practices at Foxconn. Workers are paid about $32 for a regular 40-hour work week, which is above minimum wage in the area, and often seek to work large amounts of overtime.
“Foxconn’s production line system is designed so well that no worker will rest even one second during work; they make sure you’re always busy for every second,” says Li Qiang, executive director of the China Labor Watch, a New York based labor rights group. “Foxconn only values the enterprise benefits but totally ignores the social benefits.”
Those claims have been bolstered in recent weeks by some of China’s state-run newspapers, which have published a series of sensational reports about the suicides, alongside exposes detailing what they claim are the harsh conditions inside Foxconn factories.
Some articles have described the company’s authoritarian management style, the heavy burdens workers face in trying to meet Foxconn production quotas. Others say the company has cramped dormitories that sometimes house 10 to a room.
But at Wednesday’s press conference, Foxconn executives extolled Shenzhen campus amenities that they said included modern dormitories, swimming pools and other recreational facilities. The company also said it had regularly passed stringent social audits conducted by Apple and other major customers, although some of those audits have cited labor infractions.
And while executives acknowledged a sharp rise in the rate of suicides on the Shenzhen campuses this year, they said there was no single or clear-cut cause. They insisted that personal problems and social ills, like the nation’s rising income gap, were largely to blame for the deaths — not what some say is the company’s authoritarian management style.
“There is a fine line between productivity and regimentation and inhumane treatment,” said Louis Woo, a Foxconn executive. “I hope we treat our workers with dignity and respect.”
Foxconn executives say they have invited several groups of sociologists and mental health experts here to study the suicides and offer advice about how to prevent additional deaths.
Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and one of the experts Foxconn invited here, dismissed the idea that the company’s labor practices were to blame. He said the victims were young people, aged 18 to 24, almost all of whom had recently moved to Shenzhen from rural areas. He said he believed they struggled with personal problems and the challenges of adjusting to factory life.
Professor Jing also offered a theory that widespread reports about the earlier suicides at Foxconn this year had created a contagion of copycats, particularly after rumors spread about the high compensation the company was paying some of the victims’ families. Some families had received about 100,000 renminbi, or a little more than $14,600, according to several Foxconn employees.
“We don’t know everything yet, but this almost seems like an infectious disease,” Professor Jing said. “And paying high compensation to some may have played some role.”
Health experts say the suicide figures from Foxconn, while troubling, actually remain far below the national rate of about 14 per 100,000 in China, as calculated by the World Health Organization — a figure that compares to about 11 per 100,000 in the United States. Some independent studies, though, say suicide rates in China are higher than reflected in the WHO figures.
In any case, Foxconn has drawn growing scrutiny with the sudden surge in suicides at a pair of factories here that company executives say recently hired about 100,000 workers to help meet growing demand for electronics.
Last year, a 25-year-old worker killed himself after he was accused of stealing an iPhone prototype. In e-mail and text messages to friends he said he had been beaten by the company’s security officers.
Mr. Gou rarely grants interviews and almost never allows journalists onto the Foxconn campus. But Wednesday he made an unusual show of concern, bowing several times at the news conference and apologizing for the tragedies.
And he promised to scrap recently announced plans to have all employees sign a form acknowledging that their relatives would only get basic, government mandated compensation — and nothing more generous — if they took their own lives.
The company said it originally released the form, which has been widely criticized here, after consulting with the government and worrying about whether rumors about high compensation was a contributing factor in some of the suicide attempts.
Mr. Gou even led dozens of journalists on a tour of Foxconn’s campus, visiting dormitories, a campus hospital, a production line and a center meant for helping employees with personal problems.
And he appealed to the media to be careful in its coverage of the suicides at Foxconn, which he said could fuel even more suicide attempts.
“I’m appealing to the press to take social responsibility: do not sensationalize this,” he said. But he also said the company was re-examining its own operations. “We can be a better company.”