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Foxconn suicides highlight the pressures on young factory workers in China

The death of a young migrant worker and the attempted suicide of a teenage employee at Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory this week have brought the reported number of suicide bids at the plant in the past month alone to five, with around a dozen unnatural deaths reported over the last two years.

The Taiwanese electronics giant, which supplies Apple, Nokia and Sony amongst others, has been under intense media scrutiny since last July when a 25-year-old employee, Sun Danyong, leapt to his death after management accused him of stealing an iPhone prototype. And the so called Foxconn “suicide express” is now a major topic of debate within China.

Foxconn has been in the spotlight because of its links to major multinational companies but the reality is that suicides occur in factories all over China.

Just two years ago, rival company Huawei, which has its headquarters adjacent to Foxconn in Shenzhen, was also hit by a suicide scandal, with the Chinese media reporting six mysterious deaths in the previous two years. Reports at the time emphasized the work pressures faced by employees, including excessively long hours and Huawei’s corporate “wolf culture” as the reasons for the suicides. But while these factors are important, young workers also face pressures from their families, co-workers and friends. The 18-year-old woman who jumped out of her seventh floor dormitory window at Foxconn on Tuesday, for example, had reportedly just had an argument with her boyfriend.

Foxconn says that following the rash of suicides at its plants, it is now providing counseling for its more than 300,000 employees in China. However, very few other factories pay any attention to the psychological health of their employees. The young men and women factories seek because of their ability to work long hours are particularly vulnerable to suicide. They often live a dozen to one dormitory room, away from their families and cut off from their support networks. Reports of violence in factory dormitories, particularly sexual violence, are not uncommon. And so, despite the increased cost, more and more factory workers are now choosing to live outside the factory, sharing an apartment with friends, rather than endure the pressures of dormitory life.

Hopefully, the media coverage given to the Foxconn suicides will encourage debate within China on the need to better protect the mental as well as physical health of young workers.