Monday, May 31, 2010

The Unfortunate Life of a Cog

The recent spate of suicides and suicide attempts at the Foxconn factory in South China have raised serious concerns not only about work-place environments, but also the psychological state of young people.

Foxconn Technology Group is a Taiwan-owned company, the largest final assembling supplier in the global electronics industry. Its workers assemble iPhones and iPads for Apple, and computers for Dell and HP among others.

And because it manufacturers so many of these products, the company runs its production line in a very regimented system. Workers live in dormitories in the compound where they live four to six to a room, mostly with coworkers they don't know. And there can be hundreds of thousands of workers in one factory, almost like a small city, with all these people focused on one thing -- assembling goods day and night.

Their basic salary is so low (800 RMB/$117 a month) that they must work overtime in order to earn more money; but that means working longer hours on a daily basis.

Some critics think it's the strict work environment that makes it unbearable for people to work there, leading to them wanting to end their lives. However, others believe each case is different, with a number of different circumstances they are going through.

Perhaps some of these young people had naive hopes of becoming successful in the big city of Shenzhen; perhaps some felt too much financial pressure to send back more money to their parents; perhaps they had just ended a relationship and were unable to handle the heartbreak.

Most of these workers are in their late teens and early twenties, away from home for the first time and immediately faced with the reality of trying to figure out how to navigate themselves in the real world. Many have been sheltered or lived in rural areas and haven't developed the street smarts and mental toughness needed to survive in the city.

And it is believed the ones who cannot handle the pressure or adjust to life in the big city decide that no life is better than having one.

Statistically, China claims to have 12 suicides per 100,000 people. With Foxconn having about 800,000 employees and so far 10 deaths this year, its suicide rate is less than 1 per 100,000.

The company is at its wits' end trying to end this bad publicity, by inviting the media to tour the factory grounds and installing nets everywhere to save people from suicide attempts by jumping. However, it went overboard when it tried to get employees to promise not to kill themselves so that it wouldn't have to pay extra compensation to loved ones if they did.

Nevertheless, these suicides highlight the plight of young people -- not those who have university degrees and office jobs -- but those with not much education and hope to live a better life than their parents. Which is why they choose to abandon the fields and head to the city, only to find a factory job that treats them like cogs in a machine.

Some of them may not know which is worse, tilling the same fields previous generations have done, or work like a machine in an urban setting where the disparity between the rich and poor is blatant.

It's hard to say what the solutions should be, as it's not necessarily the company's responsibility to help employees adjust to city life. But at the same time, it could perhaps offer more outlets for frustration or creativity, such as sports and arts-related activities in order to make friends. A higher basic wage would also be beneficial, though it would eat into the company's bottom line.

Foxconn has already hired more psychologists and counselors, but are employees really going to share their feelings to these people who will probably report it to the company managers?

By the same token, young people who come to the city have to have a reality check and realize what they are getting themselves into. Factory work is no glamorous job, but it can help people give some kind of financial support or give them the work experience they need to move on.


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