Media hysteria over Foxconn

In: Uncategorized

30 May 2010

The Western media are becoming hysterical over a spate of suicides at Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer of computers and mobile phones including the Apple iPad. About 12 people (accounts of the exact number vary) have evidently committed suicide among the company’s workers so far this year.

It is widely suggested that this suicide rate shows the brutal side of China’s rapid industrialisation. The implication is that it is part of the high price that Chinese workers pay for the western desire for consumer goods.

But the statistics do not support the argument. Even if Foxconn employs 420,000 workers (one report says the firm has 800,000) the number of suicides is roughly in line, or perhaps less than, what would be expected statistically.

National suicide rates are available on the World Health Organization website. The latest figures for the average number of suicides per 100,000 of the population every year are 6.4 for Britain (2007), 11.0 for America (2005) and 6.7 for selected urban areas in China (1999).

So assume Foxconn employs only 420,000 workers. If that number of Britons were selected at random the expected number of suicides for a whole year would be 4.2 x 6.4 = about 27. At that rate the number of suicides over five months would be 5 x 27 / 12 = about 11 people.  This is more or less exactly in line with the number of suicides at Foxconn so far.  At the American rate the number would be significantly higher.

No doubt working conditions at Foxconn are harsh but the media hysteria is completely overblown.