Taiwan technology manufacturer under investigation after multiple worker suicides

Foxconn Technology Group showed off a motherboard factory, swimming pool and a hotline center for workers with emotional problems as the, maker of iPods and other popular gadgets, tried to repair an image damaged by a spate of suicides in China. (May 26)
By Bloomberg News
Thursday, May 27, 2010

TAIPEI -- Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell said Wednesday that they are investigating working conditions at Taiwan's Hon Hai Group after a mounting number of suicides at their contract manufacturer.

Apple is "saddened and upset" by the suicides and has a team evaluating Hon Hai's countermeasures, said Steve Dowling, a spokesman for the maker of iPhones and iPads. HP said it is investigating Hon Hai's practices and Dell said it is examining reports about the world's largest contract manufacturer, also known as Foxconn Technology Group.

The probes add to the pressure on billionaire chairman Terry Gou, who Wednesday opened Hon Hai's biggest production site in China to the media to defend working conditions that some labor-rights groups describe as a "sweatshop." The fallout threatens to disrupt a $40 billion-a-year operation that builds everything from iPhones to desktop computers and televisions.

The chairman's opening of the manufacturing facilities highlights the scrutiny the company is facing, according to UBS analyst Arthur Hsieh.

"This has never been seen before, it's really unusual times," said Hsieh, who is based in Taipei. "It's crisis control."

There were nine suicides and two more attempts at the Chinese operations this year, a Hon Hai official said. At least four of the deaths occurred this month.

"Apple is deeply committed to ensuring that conditions throughout our supply chain are safe and workers are treated with respect and dignity," Dowling said. HP is investigating "the Foxconn practices that may be associated with these tragic events," the computer maker said in an e-mail.

"Any reports of poor working conditions in Dell's supply chain are investigated," Jess Blackburn, a spokesman for Round Rock, Texas-based Dell, said in an e-mail. "We expect our suppliers to employ the same high standards we do."

Gou, who says he has not slept well in the past month, loaded journalists aboard a fleet of five buses to tour the Longhua campus in Shenzhen, southern China, as the family of Ma Xiangqian, one of the deceased, looked on from the south gate. The parents, who say Ma didn't kill himself, knelt on the ground crying, holding on to a framed picture of their dead son.

Inside one of the factory buildings, rows of workers wearing white jackets, caps and blue slippers assemble motherboards in an area the size of a football field.

Most of the problems involve new workers, said Chen Zhonglei, 30, who manages 200 workers that assemble printers.

"These young workers coming in now are not as ready to take on hardship as much as I was when I arrived," said Chen, who has worked at Hon Hai for a decade. "Psychologically they're more fragile. When I started I didn't think about so many things."

Li Qiang, executive director of New York-based China Labor Watch, last week accused Foxconn of being a sweatshop that "tramples" workers' personal values for the sake of efficiency. On Monday, Gou said his company isn't a sweatshop.

During Wednesday's news conference, Gou said he plans to increase psychological testing to help prevent more suicides.

"I offer my sincerest apologies to society, the entire public, all our employees and their families because we had no way of preventing these things from happening," he said.

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