The sixth employee suicide this year at electronics manufacturer Hon Hai Group, a major provider to several large IT vendors, has once again raised moral questions about the industry’s use of certain Chinese suppliers.
Earlier this week, a 24-year-old worker at the company’s Longhua facility in southern China died after jumping from her apartment. In an separate case last week, a Hon Hai employee leapt to their death from a dormitory building after reportedly displaying strange behaviour. Since January, a further four workers at the company have died in similar circumstances.
Foxconn, the primary brand under which Hon Hai Group operates, employs over 200,000 people and is a key supplier of electronic components for use in Dell and HP computers, as well as Apple’s iPod music player. Products on the company’s website also include Intel-branded motherboards.
Commenting on the incidents, a Foxconn media spokesperson told the state-run newspaper China Daily: “We will do everything we can to prevent such accidents in the future.”
Hon Hai is said to have established a suicide hot line and brought in counselors to help disaffected staff, but commentators in the Chinese media have claimed that the incidents reflect a poor working environment at the company.
Working conditions in Chinese factories has been a repeated point of contention for a number of large, Western businesses, both inside and outside of IT. In April, the US National Labor Committee claimed that Microsoft computer peripherals supplier KYE "forced teenagers to work 15-hour shifts under sweatshop conditions" at its factory in Dongguan.
A subsequent independent investigation gave the supplier a week to rectify its "illegal practises". In a corporate blog post, Microsoft denied knowledge of the facility’s working environment and said that it regularly audited its suppliers.
In 2006, computer maker and consumer electronics company Apple conducted its own investigations into working conditions at Hon Hai’s Longhua site following press reports of poor employee treatment. Apple concluded that while there was evidence of overcrowding in staff dormitories, Hon Hai was not in breach of the Silicon Valley-based vendor’s compliance guidelines.
An Apple spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that the company took "such concerns seriously". Intel declined Information Age‘s invitation to comment; neither Dell nor HP were available.
Suicides in the technology industry are by no means constrained to China, however. In October 2009, the deputy chief executive of France Telecom resigned after the 24th employee suicide since July 2008. Unions blamed the suicides on a bullying managerial culture.