updated 10:10 pm EDT, Mon May 9, 2011
Company's record improves in 2011
Foxconn, which received a barrage of bad publicity and pressure both from outside groups and major clients such as Apple, HP, Dell and Nokia following a series of 17 suicides in 2010, has denied charges that it forces workers to sign a contract promising not to commit suicide and to "treasure their lives." The allegation, first published in the British tabloid The Daily Mail may be misinterpreting a much more innocuous document from over a year ago that the company had employees sign, Chinese authorities say. The company has had only one suicide in 2011, following a series of reforms.
The tabloid report cites a study by the labor group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (which goes by the acronym SACOM) that revealed the document as well as evidence of illegal overtime, forced overtime, public humiliation and other poor working conditions.
Though Foxconn is often identified as being an Apple contractor due to the enormous volume of products the company assembles for Apple, the Chinese conglomerate -- which now has over one million workers -- also makes products for many other tech companies, from Amazon to Samsung.
The incidents in SACOM's report make up a portion of a larger paper on working conditions at many other Chinese factories, and in context singles out Foxconn for being the only one to pledge to follow the government guidelines, despite the evidence of continuing issues. Foxconn has been under pressure from Apple and its over clients to improve working conditions, reduce overtime, raise salaries and otherwise improve the quality of life for its large workforce, many of whom live and work in massive facilities that include entertainment, sports and retail venues, essentially making the factory compounds into virtual cities of their own, populated by large numbers of young people, most in their mid-20s.
In 2010, the company suffered a total of 17 suicides by workers -- enough to warrant putting up nets around the multi-story buildings at the various factories. In response, the company has claimed it has cracked down on illegal or forced overtime, offered employees higher wages, and set up direct counselling services and other programs to discourage suicide.
The direct translation of the document cited by the Daily Mail starts by listing the phone numbers of employee and trade union hotlines for employees with problems, and reiterates the company's pledge to adhere to all local laws regarding worker treatment, overtime and other issues -- though critics such as SACOM claim conditions make actually reporting problems or abuse difficult.
The potentially misinterpreted passage, says U.S.-based Chinese community site The Shanghaiist, refers to a clause where the employee agrees not to harm themselves or others, and allows Foxconn to send troubled employees to mental health facilities if it deems their behavior abnormal. There is also a clause requiring employees to agree that in the case of "non-accidental" injuries (such as suicide attempts or self-mutilation), the victim nor their family can pursue legal damages outside of what local law provides, which is seen to be limiting Foxconn's libability.
Critics have charged that having the employer be the arbiter of whether an employee is mentally ill could be abused to "hide" suicidal employees by getting them off-site before they kill themselves. The one suicide of 2011, a Ms. Wang Ling, took her own life shortly after being sent to a psychiatric hospital and was technically no longer a Foxconn employee at the time of her death.
The SACOM report, which is based on interviews with 120 frontline employees as well as middle-management, says that Foxconn workers routinely work -- either voluntarily or by coercion -- 50 to 100 additional hours on top of the 173 regular work hours per month. Complaints continue to charge that employees are sometimes not paid for all the hours they work, or that they are punished for minor infractions in publicly-humiliating ways. The company denies this and says it follows industry guidelines, which cap overtime at 60 hours per month.
The Daily Mail story appears to originate from a report in Australia's News.com.au from last May, at the height of the worker suicides. While working conditions are still poor by U.S. standards, Apple and other tech companies have all issued statements saying conditions have improved since then, though problems persist.