Tragedy reaches tipping point
07 June 2010
The recent spate of suicides at Foxconn’s facility in Shenzen, China may be more down to the human psyche rather than specific problems at the factory.
First of all, I am aware that this is a very delicate subject. Each one of these 12 deaths is an individual tragedy rather than part of a collective statistic and so my following thoughts are not meant to reduce the issue to the level of idle musings.
However, I am going to start with a statistic that out of 100,000 15 to 25 year olds (the most ‘at risk’ age group) in the US, on average 22 will commit suicide. In Foxconn’s Longhua factory in Guangdong, 12 people have died from January to May, six of them last month and therefore at a rate that seems to be accelerating. Admittedly the site is huge, reportedly 420,000 work there, but this is still a large number of people over such a short space of time.
People still queue to work there as the wages were locally reasonable, and the story has recently gained momentum on account of Foxconn increasing its employees pay by some magnitude. It has also installed nets to stop people from jumping off the top of the buildings, the preferred suicide method, and given all employees access to counselling. As I have not visited the facility personally I am not in a position to criticise it or Foxconn generally, and apart from some suspicion surrounding the first death in January, there seems little that the company is doing wrong or that it is doing substantially differently from other electronics manufacturers in the area. In fact the only criticism I would feel confident of levelling at Foxconn is that for a company in this industry, it’s website is hopelessly out of date and uninformative.
Instead, I turned to another source of information; a book that I read quite a few years ago now but is firmly lodged in my conscious and immediately came to my mind when the Foxconn suicides started making the international press. The book is called The Tipping Point, written by Malcolm Gladwell, and contains a passage about a suicide epidemic on the South Pacific island of Micronesia starting in the 1960s. This island had a suicide rate of virtually zero and, starting with the death of a charismatic but love-torn teenager, rose to around 160 per 100,000, making suicide almost commonplace. There was no pact or anything so sinister, it just appeared that suicide became a form of extreme self-expression.
While people take problems at work in different ways I would suggest that very few of us contemplate suicide. If however the notion is sub-consciously planted there that suicide is not only acceptable but maybe even the right option, perhaps more people will go down that path. It may even snowball to epidemic proportions. This is the theme of The Tipping Point – when something new or unusual, good or bad, becomes part of the mainstream. Reaching the Tipping Point for example is a marketeers dream – it would be the point when the advertising has done its job and the product almost sells itself.
The Tipping Point does back its observations up with case studies to show when and where the tipping point has been reached, although the ‘how’ aspect is more difficult to pin down. I am clearly no expert on human psychology. All I am putting forward, in the case of Longhua which is of such a vast size that it may be difficult for an employee to feel like an individual human, there may be causes for the recent epidemic that are beyond Foxconn’s influence or control. And if this does parallel the Micronesia example in any way, then it is a very difficult trend to escape from.
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