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UPDATED: June 12, 2010 NO. 24 JUNE 17, 2010
Alleviating Workplace Stress
The string of suicides at Foxconn has sparked concern about well-being and pressure on young factory workers


A MOMENT OF RELAXATION: Taking off their uniforms, Foxconn workers who have just finished their shifts on assembly lines walk out of the factory complex (CFP) 

At 6:20 a.m. May 25, 19-year-old Li Hai climbed over the fence on the fifth floor of a dormitory building at Foxconn's production base in Guanlan, a town in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province. Li Hai then stepped off the edge, falling to his death.

Li, the 11th Foxconn employee to jump from a factory building in Shenzhen this year and the ninth to die, left behind a letter to his family explaining why he jumped. Shenzhen police said the letter cited enormous psychological pressure, a huge gap between reality and his expectations for life and family troubles as the reasons for his decision.

As part of the Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., the world's largest contract manufacturer, Foxconn Technology Group makes computers, game consoles and mobile phones for companies like Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Apple, Dell, Nintendo and Nokia. Of Foxconn's 800,000 employees in China, 420,000 are based in Shenzhen. They work and live inside the massive factory complex.

Li's death came one day after Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou, who ranked 334th on Forbes list of World Billionaires in 2009, made his first public comments after the rash of suicides at the Shenzhen factory saying, "I believe the company is definitely not a sweatshop."

Foxconn has announced a series of preventative measures aimed at avoiding poor employee morale. Among them are: inviting renowned psychiatrists to give counseling to employees, opening hotlines to listen to employee complaints, introducing a daily meeting dealing with concerns regarding treatment of employees and requiring every employee to take at least one day off every week.

This policy could change the tempo of life for many employees who have been relying on working overtime to earn extra money since basic salary barely covers living expenses. A salary slip of a Foxconn worker for November 2009 published by the Beijing Youth Daily on June 7 shows, of the worker's total monthly income of 2,149.5 yuan ($316), the basic salary is 900 yuan ($132), which is the local compulsory minimum wage, while all the remaining income is the worker's overtime payment for 136 hours. The worker is definitely not in the minority at Foxconn.

Picking a computer motherboard off the belt conveyor, scanning the trademark on it, putting into an anti-static bag, sticking a label on the bag and putting the bag back on to the belt conveyor. That's all 21-year-old Foxconn worker Yan Yuanjiang has to do during his working hours. Yan is supposed to repeat the same procedures up to seven times a minute during busy times.

"The key problem is not the pressure I am under during an eight-hour shift, but the pressure from working overtime in order to make ends meet," Yan told the Beijing Youth Daily.

An intern sent to work undercover for Foxconn's logistics department for 28 days in May by the Southern Weekend newspaper reported some production line staff are forced to stand for up to eight hours nonstop and have no time to communicate with each other.

Chen Hongfang, deputy chairman of the Foxconn workers' union, told Southern Weekend counseling sessions for employees in April found most employees do not even know all of their roommates' names.

Many people say the strict regulations the workers are subjected to are also a major source of stress and depression. To keep trade secrets, Foxconn prevents its workers from taking their personal belongings out of their dormitories unless they get signed permission. Workers may also be fined if they consistently refuse to finish all the food on their plates in the canteen.

Foxconn's spokesman Liu Kun says the sheer number of people applying to work there every day, roughly 8,000, proves Foxconn is not the "sweatshop" some labor activists and media claim. But, a large number of employees quit after the harsh labor and stress of the work becomes unbearable.

On June 6, Foxconn announced a 66-percent performance-based pay raise for its assembly workers in Shenzhen, who, if passing a three-month performance review, will receive a monthly salary of 2,000 yuan ($293) starting October 1. This is the second pay raise within a week on top of a 30-percent increase for all assembly workers announced on June 1.

"Compared with their parents, the new generation of migrant workers demand more free time for leisure activities and have an instinctive resistance to working overtime," says Foxconn's newsletter. Almost all Foxconn employees attempting suicide this year belong to the new generation of migrant workers, who were born in the 1980s and 1990s.

Wang Rong, Secretary of the Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), paid an investigative visit to Foxconn plant in Shenzhen on May 26. Afterward a Shenzhen Municipal Government spokesman said the government will further promote the improvement of laborers' living conditions and enterprise management, make targeted psychological interventions and help the enterprises' transformation during the financial crisis in order to prevent similar incidents.

Wang Yang, Secretary of the CPC Guangdong Provincial Committee, said in Shenzhen on May 29 that the Party, government organizations and Foxconn must "work together and take effective measures to prevent similar tragedies from happening again."

More recreational activities should be held among workers to enhance communications and more efforts should be made to help them ease work pressure, Wang said.

On the same day, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) urged its branches nationwide to improve psychological counseling for young workers.

The ACFTU urged companies to set up a collective wage negotiation system, raise pay for workers, and allow company trade unions to safeguard employees' rights.

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