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iPhone-maker Foxconn holds rallies after suicides

Wed, 08/18/2010 - 5:05am
GILLIAN WONG - Associated Press Writer - Associated Press

Following a string of suicides at its Chinese factories, Foxconn Technology Group raised workers' wages and installed safety nets on buildings to catch would-be jumpers. Now the often secretive manufacturer of the iPhone and other electronics is holding rallies for its workers to raise morale at the heavily regimented factories.

The outreach to workers shows how Foxconn has been shaken by the suicides and the bad press they have attracted to the normally publicity shy company. The latest suicide — the 12th this year — occurred August 4 when a 22-year-old woman jumped from her factory dormitory in eastern Jiangsu province.

The motivational rallies are titled "Treasure Your Life, Love Your Family, Care for Each Other to Build a Wonderful Future" and will be held at all facilities in China, according to Burson Marsteller, a public relations firm representing Foxconn.

"For a long period of time I think we were kind of blinded by our success," said Louis Woo, special assistant to Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn's parent company. "We were kind of caught by surprise."

The rally Wednesday was taking place at Foxconn's mammoth industrial park in Shenzhen, which employs 300,000 and where most of the suicides took place.

However, Woo acknowledged that there will be challenges in preventing such tragedies among such a large work force. "No matter how hard we try, such thing will continue to happen," he said.

Foxconn, part of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., has built itself into the world's largest contract maker of electronics, by delivering quality products on thin profit margins for its customers which include Apple Inc., Sony Corp., Dell Inc., Nokia Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.

Labor activists, however, say that success has come in part from driving workers hard by enforcing a rigid management style, operating a too-fast assembly line and requiring excessive overtime. The company denies that it treats employees inhumanely and has pledged to prevent more suicides and improve worker well-being.

The troubles at Foxconn came to light amid high-profile labor unrest in China and highlighted Chinese workers growing dissatisfaction with the low wages and pressure cooker working conditions that helped turn the country into an international manufacturing powerhouse.

One activist said Foxconn's Wednesday rally was unlikely to boost morale and does not replace the need for more thoroughgoing reforms.

"I don't think today's event is going to achieve anything except provide a bit of theater," said Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman of the China Labor Bulletin, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong. "Basically what Foxconn needs to do is treat its workers like decent human beings and pay them a decent wage. It's not rocket science."

"They're still tackling this from a top-down approach, they are organizing the workers. They're not allowing the workers to organize themselves," Crothall said.

A similar gathering was held Monday at Foxconn's campus in the northern city of Taiyuan, which employs about 60,000 workers. A Foxconn official in Taipei said the company decided that day to remove safety nets from the Taiyuan plant, although there are no plans to do the same at its other factories.

In May, Gou promised to work harder to prevent more deaths. More counselors were being hired and employees also were being assigned to 50-person groups to watch one another for signs of emotional trouble.

Foxconn also announced two raises, more than doubling the basic worker pay to 2,000 yuan ($293) a month at the Shenzhen compound. But workers have to pass a three-month review period before they qualify for the second raise.

___

Associated Press writer Debby Wu contributed to this report from Taipei.

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