IPhone Builder Hon Hai Turns to Monks as Worker Suicides Mount

Hon Hai Group, the Taipei-based maker of Apple Inc. iPhones and Hewlett-Packard Co. computers, said it’s recruiting mental-health professionals and building leisure facilities in its Chinese factories after at least seven employee suicides this year.

The company has deployed 100 counselors and its health division plans to work more closely with local governments and academic institutions to support its 800,000 workers in China, Edmund Ding, a spokesman at the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics, also known as Foxconn Technology Group, said by phone yesterday. He declined to comment on why workers may be taking their own lives.

The measures, which include the establishment of an “emotional support hotline” and prayers from Buddhist monks, have prevented more than 30 suicide attempts, according to the company. The deaths underscore the need to improve the quality of life for Chinese factory workers, say groups including China China Labor Watch and China Labour Bulletin.

“It’s not just related to Foxconn. There’s a lot of pressure on young workers in factories all over China,” said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. “Very few people pay attention to other factories, Foxconn is always in the spotlight, largely because of its relationship to Apple.”

Worker Deaths

Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., the group’s flagship unit, fell 1.7 percent to close at NT$141 in Taipei trading, extending the stock’s drop this year to 6.9 percent. By comparison, Taiwan’s benchmark Taiex index has dropped 7.2 percent.

A worker died from injuries after falling from a company dormitory on May 14, three days after a 24-year-old worker jumped to her death from an apartment block in Shenzhen, according to Hon Hai statements last week.

Excluding the May 14 death, whose cause has yet to be determined, seven Hon Hai employees have killed themselves this year and two workers have attempted suicide, Ding said.

On July 16 last year, 25-year-old Sun Tanyong jumped off a Shenzhen dormitory after one of the 16 iPhone prototypes he was assigned to mail went missing. Apple said at the time that the company was “saddened by the tragic loss.” Jill Tan, a Hong Kong-based spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment on the recent Hon Hai deaths.

“Recently, there’s been a series of unfortunate events at Foxconn,” Hon Hai said in a May 12 statement. “Although the events aren’t closely connected to the operations and management of Foxconn, we hope to improve our management and increase mental-health counseling.”

France Telecom

France Telecom SA, Europe’s third-largest phone operator, replaced its chief executive officer this year after labor unions blamed management for driving more than 30 employees to suicide since 2008.

A Huawei Technologies Co. employee jumped to his death on March 6, 2008, taking the number of deaths by suicide or mysterious circumstances at the company to six in two years, China Labour Bulletin wrote on May 27, 2008. Ross Gan, spokesman for Huawei, said staff had committed suicide in past years and declined to provide details.

Hon Hai was founded in 1974 by billionaire Terry Gou, Taiwan’s richest man, according to Forbes magazine, who maintains control over the company and its affiliates. Taiwan’s biggest company by revenue, whose customers include Dell Inc. and Sony Corp., operates factories throughout China as well as Central America, Vietnam and Eastern Europe.

Shenzhen Site

The Taiwanese company assembles most of its electronics in Shenzhen, north of Hong Kong. The city, home to network- equipment makers Huawei and ZTE Corp., was China’s first Special Economic Zone, with special incentives and administrative privileges dedicated to developing the country’s exports and attracting foreign investment.

Given the pay and benefits, Foxconn shouldn’t be considered a “sweatshop,” Guangzhou-based magazine Southern Weekly said in a May 12 article written by an intern it said worked at Foxconn for 28 days. Still, workers lacked entertainment facilities such as parks or movie theaters, according to the report.

“I believe Foxconn’s management is one of the strictest in China,” Li Qiang, executive director of New York-based China Labor Watch said in an e-mail. The Foxconn incidents “can be said to be part of a wider problem in China, with quite a few factories suffering similar problems from time to time.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net.

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