Suicides at Apple Factory in China Rock the Sweatshop Supply System

Apple's been all over the news these days, and not just because of the iPad. For weeks, reports have been emerging about a high number of worker suicides at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. The Taiwanese-owned company is the largest final assembler of mobile phones in the world, producing phones and other electronics for Sony, HP, Nokia, and Dell, along with Apple. More than a half million people work for the company in China alone.

Many first equated Foxconn with suicides last summer when Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old worker who allegedly lost a prototype of the fourth-generation iPhone, jumped to his death. Now, the suicides have built into a crisis for Apple and Foxconn, one that activists could push to crack the abusive relationship between between corporations and their suppliers that drives wages and working conditions ever downward across the globe.

A shocking 12 Foxconn workers have now ended their lives this year, mostly by jumping from the massive multi-story dormitories they live in during the precious few off hours they have. The crisis is so deep the company has installed safety nets between dorm buildings.

All those who have committed suicide have been between the ages of 18 and 24 and are part of a young generation of migrant workers attracted to jobs in the cities who then face terrible conditions. While these workers’ struggles could have been forgotten, their important role in the global supply chain of high-priced, high-demand devices like the iPhone and the iPad is keeping their stories in the media.

A report released last week by Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based workers’ rights non-profit created in 2005, details the exhaustion caused by 12-hour shifts, alienation from not being allowed to speak to co-workers, and a rapid just-in-time production model that has workers putting in a phone motherboard every seven seconds to meet the global demand for high-priced gadgets.

While the workers are technically unionized, the union’s chair is also the CEO’s secretary, making a call to the union hotline futile.

Foxconn has been shaking off the reports of the psychological and physical trauma workers face as statistically insignificant, reminding the media that 12 out of every 1,000 Chinese citizens commit suicide every year. Apple CEO Steve Jobs reinforced the argument that the rate of suicide at Foxconn is lower than the Chinese average in an email exchange started by a reader of LabourStart, the international labor solidarity website.

Activists closer to the scene are making some trouble. SACOM held a protest at Foxconn headquarters in Hong Kong and has called an international day of action June 8—the same day Apple launches the fourth-generation iPhone that caused so much heartbreak. They are also asking for a month-long boycott of all Foxconn products.

Talk is surfacing that Apple may be responding to months of activist pressure and bad press worldwide. A Chinese news site reported the company is considering a direct subsidy of 1 to 2 percent of profits to the Foxconn workers, which would be a tremendously important precedent for low-wage workers at the bottom of global supply chains. Other reports say Foxconn will boost wages 30 percent, although China labor watchers note that local minimum wage increases of up to 20 percent were set to kick in July 1 (registration).

Help keep the pressure up by signing SACOM’s petition here or by visiting our friends at LabourStart at www.labourstart.org/foxconn.