Foxconn’s 11th: Death by exhaustion

An advocacy group claims the factory’s latest workplace casualty followed a 34-hour shift

Foxconn workers. Photo: Device Magazine

Hong Kong-based SACOM (Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior) has added fresh details to another death — the 11th this year — among the 420,000 workers at Foxconn’s massive factory complex in Shenzhen, China.

As we reported earlier this week (see Foxconn needs a better trade union), the family of the latest victim claims that this death came not by suicide, like the previous 10, but from the stress of being overworked.

SACOM has picked up the cause of Yan Li, 27, an engineer who started at Foxconn in April 2007. By the group’s account, Yan clocked in for the night shift Tuesday May 25, worked 34 straight hours, and came home Thursday morning, where he collapsed and died from exhaustion. According to his wife, Yan had been on the night shift for a month and had worked overtime every night.

Earlier this week, Foxconn issued this statement: “We have reviewed this matter and while we cannot speculate the specific cause of death, we have found nothing to support any allegation that it was work-related.”

Still, SACOM holds Foxconn and its U.S. clients — among them Apple (AAPL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Dell (DELL) — responsible for all the deaths, including the 10 suicides:

“Despite pressure from civil society and the media,” the group wrote in a statement issued Friday, “Foxconn continues to deny that the suicides are related to management methods. In a press conference on 26 May, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou said that the suicides were due to love affairs or other personal problems of the victims. He even asserted that some workers committed suicide because of the company’s willingness to compensate their families generously. It is evident that Foxconn shows no commitment to review the structural problem in the factory. Its attempt to evade responsibility is an insult to the dead and to the public.”

The U.S. brands whose products are built by Foxconn’s workers bear some of the responsibility, the students say, because in the global supply chain, these brands get the lion’s share of the profits. Suppliers like Foxconn minimize their costs to secure contracts and then put pressure on their front-line workers to maintain thin profit margins.

The group singled out Apple and its CEO Steve Jobs for remarks he made about the suicides at a Wall Street Journal conference on Tuesday. (See here.)

“On 2 June, Apple CEO Steve Jobs defended Foxconn and stated that Apple’s supplier is not a sweatshop. He further commented that the suicide rate at Foxconn was not high. Instead of looking into the problems at Foxconn, Apple is resisting initiating a corrective plan. Jobs’ statement is no more than complicity with Foxconn’s degradation of workers and treatment of them as if they were machines.”

SACOM has declared Tuesday June 8 a global day of remembrance and is urging Apple customers to sign petitions, stage protests, and leave white flowers at Apple Stores “in memory of the victims.”

Via Cult of Mac, where you can read SACOM’s full statement and an enumeration of its demands.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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