A cluster of suicides has hit Foxconn, painting the factory in a horrible light and essentially drawing outrage just about everyone. Yesterday Foxconn CEO, Gou Tai-ming, officially spoke out against the suicides and today another potential suicide occurred at about 6:30 AM in Shenzhen.
Those are the facts and it’s a tragic situation. Something in the factory is wrong and Foxconn needs to fix it. This much is obvious.
To put this in perspective, however, I was speaking with someone who went to Cornell. If you recall, Ithaca is Gorges and, sadly, those same beautiful natural gorges are also a spot for suicides at Cornell university. This year there have been six suicides at Cornell, a record year and, with the national average reaching 7.29 suicides per 100,000 students in America, the rash of suicides there is a tragic statistical outlier.
To recap my earlier argument, the Foxconn factory feeds and houses almost 400,000 workers. If the national average of student suicides held in China, you’d see 28 suicides a year at Foxconn. For a bit of background, listen to and read this This American Life episode about a Chinese man who stops suicides on the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China.
Although this is not the narrative we want to hear, I don’t believe that Foxconn mistreats their employees any more than any ISO certified manufacturing plant does. The business of manufacturing can be deadening and exhausting but to place the blame squarely on the company is wrong. There are forces at work here we, culturally and historically, we do not understand and to raise a hue and cry over anything but the expectation that Foxconn begin offering counseling to the distraught who, for whatever reason, are deciding to take their own lives, is a dangerous course to take and masks a certain xenophobia and cultural insensitivity.