Deaths of Foxconn Employees Highlight Pressures Faced by China’s Factory Workers

2 Foxconn workers in Zhengzhou, China died last week by suicide and in a commuting accident respectively, reflecting the long-standing plight of the factory workers churning out the new iPhones. Overtime is now a special privilege only for those who can find new recruits to join the assembly line, which has become a greater difficulty due to the declined wages at Foxconn. A worker, without overtime, earns roughly US$211 per month after deductions of daily expenses – a sum far from sufficient to make ends meet, which explains why some would go so far as to hire strangers to work temporarily in exchange for the eligibility to overtime.

By Eva Dou/The Wall Street Journal
Edited by Red Balloon


ZHENGZHOU, China—Early one day last week, a 31-year-old man finished his night shift on an iPhone assembly line, climbed to the top floor of Foxconn Technology Group’s L03 production building and leapt to his death. He had been on the job for a month.

The next day, Aug. 19, another Foxconn worker was struck by a train and killed. Driving rain had flooded pedestrian underpasses, and she had scaled a fence to cross the railway tracks in an attempt to get to work.

The two deaths in the northern Chinese city of Zhengzhou—where Foxconn runs Apple Inc.’s main site for iPhone production—came under completely different circumstances. But to the tens of thousands of workers who have joined the factory ranks in recent weeks to assemble Apple’s next-generation iPhone, the deaths are a reminder of the stresses and hazards that can come with the factory jobs promoted to poor Chinese here and in other manufacturing centers as a ticket to the middle class.

“Why is it always the entry-level workers who jump?” asked one Foxconn employee. The suicides that occur at the Foxconn factory from time to time, she said, reflect the precarious existence of Chinese migrant workers and their lack of money and resources to solve personal problems.

Foxconn expressed its condolences for the death of the worker at its building and said it was cooperating with an investigation into the circumstances.

Apple said it would seek more information on the deaths last week, while restating its commitment to the well-being of assembly workers.

“Facilities in Zhengzhou and throughout our supply chain offer employee assistance programs, designed in conjunction with Apple and available to every worker, to provide access to social services and counselors whenever needed,” the Cupertino, Calif.-based company said in a statement.

“We constantly monitor working conditions to ensure that they meet our strict standards, and we will investigate the incidents in Zhengzhou,” it said.

The two deaths were foremost on the minds of more than a dozen many Foxconn workers interviewed this weekend.
They were especially anxious to learn details of the suicide, which they said occurred during a time of intense pressure on workers as the factory ramps up for iPhone production.

In years past, these workers said, Foxconn would make liberal use of overtime to ensure that assembly lines were fully staffed. But they say Foxconn has now shifted tactics in some units, and is allowing only workers who can recruit another worker to be eligible for overtime. They say this creates hardships for those who can’t find recruits, as without overtime wages are barely enough to live on.

“This was not that much a problem in previous years, when lots of people wanted to work at Foxconn,” said one Foxconn employee who worked in recruitment. “But everyone knows now that the work doesn’t pay. It is hard to recruit your friends.”

Without overtime pay, Foxconn assembly line workers take home around 1,400 yuan ($211) a month after deductions for expenses including food and housing, workers said. Overtime hours can double that, but even then pay is less than the 5,000 yuan or more that they earned a few years ago during the iPhone’s boom, they say.

Workers said that among their colleagues who can’t convince a friend to join, it has become common to pay a stranger 200 yuan to work temporarily in order to qualify for overtime.

“It is a pressure for workers, especially those with families,” said a 26-year-old worker surnamed Zhao. “If you can’t get overtime hours, you barely earn anything.”

Geoff Crothall, a spokesman for Hong Kong-based workers’ rights group, China Labour Bulletin, said workers are basically forced to work overtime to earn a living wage, so requiring them to recruit other workers in order to get overtime puts them in a difficult situation.

“At times when production is being ramped up, the pressure falls on the assembly line workers,” he said. “Occasionally workers will take extreme actions. We have seen this far too many times in the past.”

Foxconn didn’t respond to questions about its recruitment policies for this article.

In the past, the company has pointed out that it has tried to limit overtime as part of its efforts to create a better working environment.

Foxconn is sensitive to the suicide issue. In 2010, its factories in China gained notoriety for more than a dozen worker suicides. The company contended the self-inflicted death rate wasn’t unusual for a work population of its size—it employs hundreds of thousands—but nonetheless it took measures aimed at making factory work life more pleasant.

Apple also responded, implementing measures that included curbing excessive overtime and setting up a group to audit Foxconn factory conditions.

Apple didn’t immediately respond to requests to comment on this article.

Foxconn’s production center offers amenities that many factories across China don’t, including karaoke parlors, in-house rock bands and a psychologist hotline.

At the same time, factory work brings hardships—compounded by the fact that many of the workers are migrants who move from job to job as hiring ebbs and flows.

The worker who died crossing the train tracks was named Cheng Huifang, according to an internal Foxconn alert on the accident reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. She woke up on Friday evening for her night shift to pouring rain, according to residents of Gangsun village, where she lived with her husband.

The farming village is located across the railroad tracks from Foxconn, and has in recent years drawn married workers who didn’t want to live in the gender-segregated factory dorms, villagers said.

The underpass below the railway tracks was filled to the brim with rainwater on Friday. To get to work, villagers said, Foxconn workers climbed the fence of the railway and ran across the tracks. Ms. Cheng apparently didn’t see the train coming.

“When she was crossing the railroad, she was immediately struck and killed by a train,” the internal notice said. “The police have been notified… . Every manager and colleague, please raise awareness of the importance of commuter safety!”

On the outskirts of the factory complex, Foxconn runs a recruitment center, where employees wearing red vests plead with prospective workers to sign on.

“Join Foxconn,” they cry, “and live a middle class life!”