Suicides at iPhone manufacturing plants cause corporate change

Foxconn's founder takes positive steps to alleviate issues that led to 11 suicides at the factory that makes iPhones.

If any of you get down about your job—maybe your boss is a creep, the hours are too long, the company vending machine doesn't offer a creative variety—think for a moment about Foxconn, and this image:

That's the Foxconn (the industrial complex in Shenzhen that produces Apple's iPhones). Last year, eleven employees of Foxconn committed suicide by jumping to their deaths from factory windows. The image shows the company's initial response to the tragedies—three million square meters of mesh netting wrapped around the building to catch jumpers.

(An interesting side note: A similar means of deterrence was proposed in October of 2008 for the Golden Gate Bridge, which averages one suicide every two weeks.)

When I first saw the story about the nets, I thought that was perhaps the most shocking, reactionary corporate act I'd ever heard of. But, fortunately, that action was accompanied by some long-term changes that the industrial giant's leaders hope will change the lives and well-beings of its employees before they get to the point of suicidal thoughts.

They've set up a 24-hour counseling center staffed by 100 trained workers and they increased wages for factory workers by 50 percent. Finally, Terry Gou, Foxconn's founder, hired Burson-Marstellar to help devise a formal public-relations strategy.

Now, here's where I get cynical. Why was the public relations strategy needed? Because Foxconn's partners—Apple, IBM, Cisco, Microsoft—might try to distance themselves from Foxconn in light of the suicides? And by "distance" I mean take their business elsewhere? Absolutely.

I only hope the initiatives they've implemented for the workers themselves are more meaningful and deeper than a PR strategy. It looks like it's been moving in the right direction, according to this Businessweek article, The man who makes your iPhone.


Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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