Wrong on So Many Levels

Even as Apple’s stock price rises thanks to their star products and skill at supply chain cost control, chief supplier Foxconn Installs Antijumping Nets at Hebei Plants. Anti-jumping nets?

Having built safety nets along its employee dormitories after a series of jumping suicides at its Shenzhen production plant, Taiwanese electronics manufacturing giant Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., which uses the trade name Foxconn, is now installing the same sort of nets at some of its inland factories, state media reported Tuesday.

It’s hard to know where to begin… maybe this was Foxconn’s idea of “problem containment”. They did raise wages from $120 or so to more than double that amount so perhaps root causes of these suicides are being actively investigated, but I’m skeptical. If things are so bad that people would rather hurl themselves off of tall buildings than work in a Foxconn factory (or even just go find a factory job down the street) it seems like Foxconn should put the nets on the doors of their factories to catch people from going in.

The 42,000 employees in the Shenzhen plant assemble nearly 70% of the iPhones and iPads for Apple. There have been 10 factory workers who jumped to their deaths in the first 5 months of 2010 at the Shenzhen plant. Think about this the next time someone quips, “There’s an app for that”. Use your i-Pad or Phone to e-mail Steve Jobs and ask what he’s doing about Foxconn.

10 Comments

  1. Ron

    August 6, 2010 - 12:03 pm

    I am not sure it’s entirely fair to blame Apple without more insight into why this is happening.
    This sounds a lot like the story of the teen suicides in the book “The Tipping Point” where a young man decided to “get back” at his girlfriend for doing him wrong by killing himself. This was the first teen suicide ever on this small island.
    This then started a series of teen suicides as other young men decided this was a good way to deal with their problems. In short, this problem “tipped” in an extremely unfortunate manner.
    I wonder if something similar is happening here?
    Now, is it possible Apple is to blame for these deaths? Maybe. But to immediately call them out without more data and understanding seems a bit unfair.

  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    August 6, 2010 - 1:45 pm

    Your title says it all – wrong on so many levels. This is just crazy.

  3. Jon

    August 6, 2010 - 7:11 pm

    Hi Ron
    I didn’t mean to imply Apple is to blame but it seems they bear responsibility for turning a blind eye to working conditions within a major part of their supply chain.
    A statistician may be able to point to 10 suicides out of a population of 42,000 teenagers toiling for low pay in boredom as within “normal” distribution in society. That still doesn’t mean that society and its enablers aren’t wrong.

  4. John Santomer

    August 7, 2010 - 1:41 am

    Dear Jon,
    Though Toyota Way Principles have proven to be effective in eliminating waste and bringing about lean in every field…how do you apply these to an unquantifiable thing as human emotion and psyche? Bad practices and management may be a big contributing factor but the decision to take one’s own life is dependent on the embedded person’s character. These things can’t be readily addressed. Treatment and peeling off the masks to reveal the root causes sometimes takes years of therapy and treatment.

  5. John Hunter

    August 7, 2010 - 5:36 am

    I agree with Ron and Jon. It is wrong on many levels. I do think Apple has some responsibility. I do think human psychology around suicide is complex and confusing and cause and affect can be confused by correlation not cause.
    Putting the nets there sure looks lame and like non-root cause problems solving. But if they actually save lives then what? There are nets below the Golden Gate bridge (also to reduce suicide deaths) after quite a bit of debate http://articles.latimes.com/2008/oct/11/local/me-goldengate11 http://sfappeal.com/news/2010/07/breaking-the-golden-gate-suicide-barrier.php
    Cornell University has a long term problem with suicide jumpers http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/24/cornell-suicide-barrier_n_511991.html 6 this year and they have installed suicide prevention fences http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July10/BridgeFAQ.html “Several suicides clustered in a close proximity of time and location, such as what Cornell experienced in late winter, are known to cause an “imitation” effect on vulnerable members of the community, elevating their risk of suicide. No one knows for sure how long the elevated risk can last, but the mental health professionals Cornell consulted said that it is very likely to continue for the foreseeable future and strongly recommended that temporary barriers remain in place while permanent means restriction measures are explored and designed.”
    I am not at all sure the suicide prevention nets at Foxconn are a bad idea. They certainly “look” (visually, and the image they convey is not being very root cause problem solving like) bad.
    If we examine Cornell and Foxconn together what answers might we find? I think there are things to fix at Foxconn but it is very easy for those of us the USA to just paint management as villainous. I don’t think we will paint Cornell professors as villainous. Foxconn absolutely needs to do much more than put up nets. But whether putting up nets is good short term fix (like Cornell’s) I think is at least debatable.

  6. Joe Dager

    August 7, 2010 - 6:20 am

    I always appreciate you column but this one seems a little off base. It reminds of why I don’t watch many of the news channels these days, unsubstantiated claims. Jon, I commend the company for reacting. Many companies would think that they might open a liability claim by trying to improve the situation and do nothing. A touchy subject that you have to try to deal with even if the company is at fault. But they choose to do something rather than nothing and than deal WITH ROOT CAUSE.

  7. Joseph

    August 7, 2010 - 1:15 pm

    Jon.
    I believe that this issue should be dealt with and totally owned by the STATE.
    One life lost should trigger an alert. Ten such cases and the offices of the state should be crawling all over the situation.
    Any problem can be solved if there is a collective will to take action.

  8. Lost in the Northeast

    August 9, 2010 - 4:52 am

    Maybe the nets are there more to protect people entering or leaving the building from being hit by falling employees? Really, this is a sad state of affairs, and those who want to wait to pass judgement upon Apple are just plain wrong. Apple contracts with Foxconn to produce Apple products and therefore assumes an appropriate level of responsibility. If those employees who jumped to their deaths were American, there would be no question of giving Apple a “pass.” I wonder if this attitude comes from those who love their Apple products and do not want to “feel guilty” about owning them and using them. (I have never owned nor used any Apple product. Now I probably never will.)
    And Joseph, you concern me with your talk of the STATE and “collective will.”

  9. Joseph

    August 9, 2010 - 11:01 am

    Lost in the Northeast.
    What problem do you have with me saying that the Chinese State should take ownership of this issue? It is their people that are dying. Most modern countries would have a Health and Safety department that would investigate things like this to ensure that the route causes are found and acted on.
    The collective will would involve every one that is involved in this tragedy. If this happened in America or England there would be a major investigation. How many people have to die before the route cause is found and acted on? If this concerns you then tough.
    I have not put one word of blame in my comment just said that the government of China should be solving the problem.

  10. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    August 15, 2010 - 7:49 am

    This demonstrates another challenge of outsourcing taken to extremes. At the end, the customer (and of course sometimes the government) gets to decide if you are responsible for the actions of your supply base. It is one thing to react once things happen. I would hope people would instead pay attention to how their suppliers are acting day-in and day-out. Of course, it is easier just to ignore problems when we don’t know they exist. The ostrich-head-in-the-sand is not a recommended strategy.