'Blood-stained dagger' found at site of alleged suicide

Seven employees of a thriving tech firm based in southern China have fallen to their deaths so far this year. Foxconn's long client list includes Apple and Sony Ericsson, and the welfare of its employees has begun drawing international attention as stories of reported suicides continue emerging.

The latest incident involved a 21-year old Foxconn employee with the surname Liang who died Friday night. According to the government-run Xinhua news agency, a blood-stained dagger was found with Liang and his body sustained several knife cuts.

Police are investigating the so-called suicide, though it is common practice for thorough investigations to be closed up in government secrecy after they are completed. At least two others survived recent falls from Foxconn buildings, and are reportedly still being hospitalized.

Foxconn runs huge factories in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, where an estimated 300,000 workers make computer and phone products in round-the-clock shifts. Reuters calls them "the world's top contract maker of cellphones." The company reported consolidated net profits of US$568.73 million during the first quarter of 2010.

According to China Radio International, also state-run, Foxconn is known for a "rigid, semi-military corporate culture." All alleged suicides have involved workers born in the 1980s who were second-generation migrant workers. Discrimination and inequality toward this group have led to a rural-urban divide that Chinese sociologists warn not only hurts work performance, but also damages relations between coworkers.

As Engadget blogger Thomas Ricker writes, suicide is not funny. But Foxconn Group chairman Terry Guo has caused many following this story to smirk with the decision to seek the aid of an exorcist. Then again, as very little has been reported in English thus far, Guo could have simply meant he was bringing in a particular monk, in a role similar to a US army chaplain.

Apple has plenty of worries in Asia already as their iPhone components manufacturer Wintek is facing poisoning lawsuits from workers and new iPhone models have been getting leaked. According to Wired, the company said earlier this year it is working to ensure its partners around the world comply with responsible business practices. In a supplier responsibility report (.pdf), Apple said it audited 102 facilities in 2009.

Labor violations committed at supply chains all over Asia were detailed last year in a report by Global Post. Based on six months of interviews with workers and activists, it found that sweatshop-like conditions are not uncommon. Some pointed to hourly wages below a dollar and firings with no notice.

One week ago, industry website Digital East Asia wrote about what was then the newest Foxconn death. Lu Xin jumped from a hotel balcony on May 6 after claiming he was being followed.

Chinese media are reporting (link in Chinese) that Mr. Lu had been exhibiting abnormal behavior prior to his death.  On April 30 he had told his friend, Mr. Zeng Hongling that he was being followed and there were people trying to kill him.  Mr. Zeng reported the situation to his supervisor; the supervisor asked Mr. Zeng and another close friend of Mr. Lu to accompany Mr. Lu.  In the following days, Mr. Lu had stated he wanted to go back home to Hunan province, but when his friends offered to buy him a train ticket he changed his mind.

At the suggestion of a counsel, Foxconn contacted Mr. Lu’s parents and asked them to travel to Shenzhen to visit him. However, due to the May 1 National holiday, his parents could only get tickets for May 5.  They were scheduled to arrive in Shenzhen at 9am on the 6th.

Mr. Lu knew his parents were coming.  Foxconn arranged to have him and his two friends stay at the hotel.  They went to sleep at around 1:30am.  At around 4:30am, Mr. Lu got up and claimed that the room was too stuffy and wanted fresh air. He got onto the balcony and jumped.  His two friends had tried to stop him but failed.  Mr. Lu was immediately taken to a hospital, but died around noon on May 6.

"I believe this is a serious labor scandal waiting to blow up in the face of Apple, Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Amazon, Nokia, Motorola, Nintendo, Microsoft, Dell, Cisco and any other brands that Foxconn manufactures for," Nan Duan wrote.