Image: Terry Gou
Voishmel  /  AFP - Getty Images
Terry Gou, chairman of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision, prepares for a press conference at the company's giant Foxconn plant in southern China, which makes Apple iPods and other products under contract. Gou led reporters on a tour of the facility, where a spate of worker suicides has stoked anger about labor conditions.
msnbc.com news services
updated 5/26/2010 10:36:27 AM ET 2010-05-26T14:36:27

Foxconn International Holdings Ltd., one of Apple's Chinese manufacturers, is asking its employees to sign a pledge that they will not kill themselves as the company tries to control the damage from a spate of suicides among its work force.

The normally secretive Taiwanese company opened its sprawling factory complex in the southern city of Shenzhen to reporters Wednesday after a 19-year-old worker jumped to his death from a building, the ninth apparent suicide this year at the factory that makes iPods and iPhones.

Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou bowed deeply several times and apologized but also cautioned there was only so much his company could do.

"I'm very concerned about this. I can't sleep every night," said Gou, one of Taiwan's best known businessmen. "From a scientific point of view, I'm not confident we can stop every case. But, as a responsible employer, we have to take up the responsibility of preventing as many as we can."

The world's largest contract maker of electronics, which also counts among its products Dell computers and Nokia phones, has been a lightning rod for labor activists who say its working conditions cause misery for its vast work force.

The tour comes after the suicide on Tuesday of Li Hai, 19. He was the latest victim of the suicide surge, jumping to his death from a building at the world's largest contract maker of electronics, which also counts among its products Dell computers and Nokia phones.

Police said Li killed himself after working at the plant for only 42 days, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The suicide was the ninth at Foxconn's massive plant in Shenzhen, which employs more than 300,000 people in southern China's Pearl River Delta — dubbed the workshop to the world. Two other workers have tried to kill themselves by jumping from buildings in Shenzhen but they survived. Another suicide occurred at a smaller plant in northern Hebei province in January.

The highest-profile death occurred in July when Sun Danyong, 25, jumped to his death after being interrogated over a missing iPhone prototype.

Tuesday's death came just three days after a 21-year-old man who worked in the logistics department jumped from a four-story building shortly after finishing the night shift Friday. His motivations were still not known.

Foxconn has asked employees to sign a pledge that they would not commit suicide and accept medical help if necessary, Bloomberg reported, citing a Hong Kong-based newspaper that published a scan of the document supplied by a worker.

Edmund Ding, a spokesman for Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Foxconn’s parent, wouldn’t confirm the report but said the company had recently spoken to employees and asked them to not to commit suicide.

Gou said many of the deaths were most likely caused by a variety of factors including failed romance, an area difficult for the company to get involved in.

But he said Foxconn was consulting with a large group of mental health professionals who have been reviewing the company's personnel records.

Gou personally led six busloads of journalists through the industrial park, which employees 300,000 people and looks much like a small city.

The palm-tree lined streets had fast food restaurants, bakeries and banks. Gou showed off the complex's swimming pool and a large mental health center, with a long row of women working hot lines.

Labor activists say the string of suicides back up their long-standing allegations that workers toil in terrible conditions at Foxconn. They claim shifts are long, the assembly line moves too fast and managers enforce military-style discipline on the work force.

But Foxconn has insisted that workers are treated well and are protected by social responsibility programs that ensure their welfare. The Shenzhen factory is perennially a popular place to work, with hordes of applicants lining up for jobs during the hiring season.

Gou noted that most of the suspected suicides involved workers who'd been at the company for less than six months.

Inside the factories, where reporters were allowed to talk freely with workers, many acknowledged the pressures of the job and noted many employees came from China's less developed areas.

"Maybe they can't take the stress here," said Tang Wenying, a young line supervisor from central China's Hunan province.

"This is a good place to work because they treat us better than many (other) Chinese factories."

Foxconn is a major manufacturer for Apple Inc., and the American company told The Associated Press that it has talked to Foxconn's senior management about the suicides and believes the firm is taking the matter seriously.

"We are saddened and upset by the recent suicides at Foxconn," Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said. "Apple is deeply committed to ensuring that conditions throughout our supply chain are safe and workers are treated with respect and dignity."

"A team from Apple is independently evaluating the steps they are taking to address these tragic events, and we will continue our ongoing inspections of the facilities where our products are made," he said.

Dell Inc. also said it was also looking into Foxconn's situation. Nokia Corp. spokeswoman Louise Ingram declined to comment on specific suicide cases.

Outside the factory, the father of father of 19-year-old Ma Xiangqian, one of the apparent suicide victims, was weeping alongside his wife and daughter, Reuters reported.

The parents say Ma, who was found dead at the bottom of a stairway at the campus in January, died under mysterious circumstances. They want to know why.

"All we want to know is the truth. We don't even want compensation," said the father, who was dressed in white, the traditional color of mourning in China.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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