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Can employers prevent workplace suicide?

shockI was recently reading an issue of SafetyNewsAlert, which indicated that there were over 20 attempted suicides over one year in a single Chinese technology factory—one that manufactures products for Apple, including the iPad, among other things. Out of the 20 attempts, 9 suicides were successful within a period of five months. According to the article, questions are being raised about the sustainability of China’s manufacturing model, which relies on long hours from its workers. Typical workweeks include seven days of twelve hours.

All I can say is, Wow! But it made me want to delve deeper.

In my search, I found an article at SafetyatWorkBlog that provides a good overview of the situation and questions who’s to blame: the factory or Apple?

In these articles, Foxconn, the employer, admitted that it had paid “insufficient attention” to the well-being of its workers. In my opinion, the issue is more than lack of attention to a wellness program, but a violation of hours of work, rest period rules and fair and safe work conditions.

According to an employee at Foxconn:

“Life is meaningless”, said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Conversation on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to 10 minutes every two hours and constant noise from the factory washes past his ear plugs, damaging his hearing, Ah Wei said.

The suicide attempts are not just located at the Foxconn factory, but a phenomenon in other Chinese factories as well. According to the World Health Organization, China had a suicide rate of 16.9 people out of 100,000 in 2004.

There seems to be a predominant practice in China to ignore the labour laws and code of conducts, but to follow rules devised and implemented by the factories themselves. These rules are the true regulations workers live by. They are strictly enforced, and breaches carry stiff penalties for workers.

The ability to hire cheap but more productive labour in China with corporate-friendly working conditions is one of the reasons for the lack of enforcement of labour laws and protection of working conditions in China. Foreign Policy in Focus notes that:

Public policy in the United States and other countries has allowed these corporations to realize immense benefits from the low pay and poor conditions under which their Chinese workers work. These policies have been justified largely on the grounds that foreign corporations operating in China would elevate labor and human rights standards.

But that does not seem to be the case.

Foxconn executives have blamed social ills and say the suicides are not work-related. But company executives say they’ve done all they can to stop workers from attempting suicide and to improve working conditions at its huge plants in Shenzhen. This means putting nets where the suicide attempts have occurred, and raising salaries in an effort to improve working conditions. Foxconn raised pay for workers by 30 percent to 1,200 yuan from 900 yuan a month, spokesman Edmund Ding said.

But is that enough?

The additional money may not be enough to stem the suicides, according to Xiao Qi, a college graduate who works at Foxconn in product development. He earns 2,000 yuan a month ($293), yet gets no joy from his job, he said.

“I do the same thing every day; I feel empty inside,” said Xiao, who said he has considered suicide. “I have no future.”

Labour costs are soaring in China and economists are saying that it could change the cost structure of global supply chains. Consumers in other countries may eventually be forced to pay more for a wide range of goods that are made there.

However, salary is one thing, but it is hardly the only thing when it comes to good working conditions; and it’s the other things that need to improve in China.

The unfortunate case in China is that there is only one recognized union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. It is a government-controlled union that favours managers over workers and rarely upholds workers rights.

Due to the prevailing political system and the absence of independent non-governmental organizations, such as trade unions, health and safety agencies and human rights organizations, the question of whether working conditions will actually improve is still hanging in the air. On June 11, 2010, Foxconn decided to halt hiring and review resource allocations (boost productivity and retain more experienced workers). What does that mean, I don’t know. But it does not sound to me like a step in the right direction.

Yosie Saint-Cyr
Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 15 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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