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CHINA: Spate of Factory Suicides Exposes Sorry Plight of Workers

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Jun 10 2010 (IPS) - Ma Xiangqian, a 19-year-old migrant from the eastern Chinese province of Henan, worked the 11-hour night shift, seven days a week, putting together electronic parts for Foxconn Technology, the world’s biggest contract maker of information technology goods.

By all accounts, he hated his job. In the month before his death in January, Ma worked 286 hours, including 112 hours of overtime – about three times the legal limit. And after an altercation with a superior, he had been demoted to cleaning toilets.

Ma’s death was ruled a suicide by the company and police. His family has alleged Ma was murdered, although police have found no evidence of foul play.

Since Ma’s body was found, 12 other Foxconn employees have killed themselves, or attempted to, at Foxconn’s two campuses in Shenzhen, raising concerns about working conditions not just at Foxconn, but at factories throughout China.

“I can use the word ‘miserable’ to describe working conditions in China,” Xiao Qingshan, a labour rights activist whose nephew worked at Foxconn, told IPS. “There’s a strange phenomenon in China where the people who work the hardest earn the least.”

At Foxconn, Xiao said, employees are underpaid, forced to work 12 hour days and routinely subjected to verbal abuse from managers. Xiao, who conducted interviews with Foxconn employees and relatives of suicide victims, said employees were also forced pay an “introduction fee” of up to 20,000 renminbi (about 3,000 U.S. dollars) before starting work at the factory.

In a statement issued this week, the company said that the deaths were not salary related but instead likely caused by personal problems and exacerbated by financial motives. Billionaire chairman Terry Guo told investors that the company had broken no laws.

“If I’d done anything illegal, they’d have already locked me up,” Guo said Tuesday at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Foxconn’s flagship unit and the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics. “I invite the world to come to my company, my factories, to fully investigate.”

The company also said in its statement that some of the workers may have been motivated to kill themselves due to the “liberal” compensation offered to the families of workers who have committed suicide. Foxconn said in the statement it would follow government rules on payouts to families.

Foxconn has contracts with Apple, Sony, Motorola and other major global brands. Apple’s chief executive Steve Jobs called the suicides “troubling” last week, but added Foxconn is not a “sweatshop.” Hewlett-Packard and Dell, Inc., the largest U.S. computer makers, have said they have begun examining Foxconn’s working conditions.

In response to the spate of suicides, the company announced it would raise salaries by 20 percent and begin offering counselling to its 420,000 employees. It has also erected anti-suicide nets at its sprawling industrial campus in Longhua, Guangdong province in south-east China.

Xiao, the labour activist, said raising the salary is a good start, but that Foxconn managers “should treat the workers as people, not animals.”

Ji Shao, a labour expert at Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, said that salaries of factory workers need be raised across China, and that even Foxconn’s new monthly salary of 2,000 renminbi (293 dollars) is too low.

“I’ve read many reports on the Foxconn case, and almost all of them say the same thing: Employees there feel like they’re machines,” Ji said, adding that as long as workers are willing to work overtime to make more money, companies will continue to offer the government mandated minimum wage. “They don’t want to give more, even if it’s one cent more.”

But she added that this is also a case of a new generation of workers – most born in the 1980s and 1990s – who are unable or unwilling to cope with the same kind of hardships experienced by the previous generation.

“They have fewer siblings, they have some education, and they will never go back home to do farm work. But at the same time, their lack of training means they can’t find a decent job in big cities. Also, because of the rich- poor gap, they feel unfairly treated, so they become vulnerable to extreme action,” Ji told IPS.

Ji said that China’s labour laws are routinely violated and that workers are offered very little protection. Last year during a trip to Dongguan, an industrial city in Guangdong province, Ji and her team found that 80 percent of companies were violating labour laws; many companies refused to sign contracts with workers and were paying a salary below the minimum wage.

Xiao called China’s labour laws “useless” and said they exist only for show. “The local governments use them to safeguard and protect local businesses, but no one cares whether the benefits intended for workers are guaranteed,” he said.

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