Worker Dies of Fatigue

An employee dies from overwork at a Chinese factory facing criticism over worker suicides.
2010-06-01
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Ten employees have committed suicide at Foxconn's plant in Shenzhen this year.
Ten employees have committed suicide at Foxconn's plant in Shenzhen this year.
AFP

HONG KONG—Managers at an electronics factory in southern China are trying to cover up the circumstances surrounding the death of an employee from fatigue, according to the worker's relatives.

The Foxconn factory in China’s southern business hub of Shenzhen is reeling after a series of suicides that workers say have been brought on by abusive labor conditions.

Foxconn, owned by Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry, saw its 10th employee suicide Wednesday, sparking calls for an investigation into its working conditions.

But unknown to the public, engineer Yan Li died suddenly at his home in Shenzhen just hours after the 10th employee took his own life.

Yan’s wife, surnamed Gao, said in an interview that her husband awoke early experiencing shortness of breath and died shortly after.

“Before that, he had to work overtime every night. On the day of his death he didn’t take any break during the day and continued to work through the night,” she said.

Gao said that the result of a medical examination listed “seizure from asthma” as the cause of her husband’s demise.

Foxconn said Yan Li frequently worked overtime but denied any responsibility for his death.

Yan’s brother-in-law, surnamed Zhang, said Yan had been working particularly long hours before his death.

“In the last few days of his life, Yan Li worked extremely hard. He labored for almost 24 hours on May 24. The next day he went to work again. His colleagues said at noon they had noticed he looked very sleepy and hadn’t had his lunch. Then he died [the next morning].”

‘Completely exhausted’

According to Gao, she and Yan are both from Macheng city in China’s central Hubei province.

Yan had joined Foxconn in 2007 and worked most recently as a mid-level manager responsible for new product development.

“He always complained about too much work and too much pressure while working a double workload. He often said he was completely exhausted at work,” Gao said.

Gao said Foxconn representatives came to talk to her on Monday about Yan’s death benefits.

“[They] said we would receive some company compensation, combined with a lump sum welfare payment he had contributed to and his salary. It totals less than 200,000 yuan (U.S. $29,000).”

Details about Yan’s death are scant.

Online posts by his colleagues claim that Yan died of overwork following more than a month of consecutive night shifts, including several 24 hour days.

But Foxconn has blocked information about Yan and maintains that he died as a result of a “seizure from asthma,” which his friends and family refuse to accept.

Chinese media have not yet reported Yan’s death.

A Foxconn operator who answered the phone Tuesday declined to forward an inquiry to company management, asking all that requests for interviews be sent by e-mail first.

“No such thing [has happened]. Please don’t believe the rumors,” the operator said when asked about the cause of Yan’s death.

Xia Shanyan, who worked next to Yan in the factory, declined to discuss the issue when contacted by phone.

“I cannot talk on this issue without the presence of a third party,” Xia said.

But Pu Tao, another co-worker of Yan, confirmed that Yan had regularly worked overtime recently.

“The relevant departments at Foxconn have been dealing with Yan’s death. Yes, recently he worked a lot of overtime shifts. But if you don’t want to work that much, you don’t have to,” Pu said, without elaborating.

Sun Suiqin, a labor lawyer in Shanghai, said Yan had been required to work longer than legally allowed under Chinese labor laws.

“It is illegal to request a worker work more than 70 hours overtime in a month. They should report this to authorities,” Sun said.

According to an overtime salary history posted online by a fellow Foxconn worker, the worker once worked 127 hours of overtime in a month, averaging four hours per day.

Military-style discipline

Foxconn recently announced a 33 percent rise in salaries at its China plants, one day after the company saw its 13th suicide bid by an employee Thursday.

Official media said police were still investigating the latest suicide attempt, in which a 25-year-old worker surnamed Chen slashed his wrists in the early hours of the morning, but survived following medical treatment.

Chen's attempt followed 12 suicide attempts by Foxconn employees in the last year, 10 of them successful.

The suicides have sparked a flood of reports online about military-style discipline at the factory, owned by Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry.

Its workers assemble Apple's iPhone, as well as electronic equipment for such major industry players as U.S. computer maker Dell, Japan's Sony, and Finland's Nokia.

Employees blame long hours, a rigid regime, and abusive disciplinary procedures for the suicides.

Before the suicides, they said, employees were working seven day weeks, but Foxconn brought in a six-day working week after they began.

Foxconn assembly line workers typically earn around 1,600 yuan (U.S. $235) monthly, but the disciplinary system means that they risk losing some of their pay to fines if they break the factory rules.

Technology giants Nokia and Sony have voiced concerns over conditions at Foxconn, pledging to look into conditions at the factory. Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell have also vowed to investigate.

Original reporting by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Ping Chen. Written in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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