Jul 22

Chinese worker commits suicide after iPhone prototype goes missing

Written by Allen on Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009 at 11:52 pm
Filed under:-mini-posts, Analysis, General, News | Tags:, , , ,
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News of the suicide of Chinese worker Sun Danyong last Thursday after his employer accused him of stealing an Apple iPhone prototype has caused quite a stir in Chinese media and online community.

Sun was a recent engineering graduate and worked in Taiwan-based company Foxconn, which manufactures products for Apple.  Sun jumped out of the window of his apartment last Thursday days after a senior security official had detained and beat him after one of sixteen iPhone prototypes under Sun’s possession went missing.

Here is a report from WSJ:

News media in China are reporting that a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, which manufactures products for Apple there, committed suicide last week after being interrogated about a missing prototype for a new iPhone.

According to publications that include the Shanghai Daily, Sun Danyong, a recent engineering graduate, jumped out of the window of his apartment last Thursday. The reports said Sun, who had been tasked with sending iPhone prototypes to Apple, had been under suspicion for stealing after one of the handsets went missing. Some publications reported that, in the days prior to his suicide, Sun had been detained and beaten by a senior official in the security department of the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturing giant.

Foxconn could not be reached for comment. But some reports quoted a statement from Foxconn general manager Li Jinming, who apologized for what happened and attributed the incident to a lack of management. He added that the official who had questioned Sun has been suspended and is under investigation by the police.

A spokesman for Apple said, “We are saddened by the tragic loss of this young employee and we are awaiting results of the investigations into his death. We require that our suppliers treat all workers with dignity and respect.”

Some English-language blogs, including Gizmodo and Apple Insider, were critical of Foxconn’s handling of the situation, pointing out that the manufacturer has run into accusations of harsh working conditions before. Others, such as VentureBeat, pointed to the pressure that Foxconn and other contract manufacturers face to adhere to Apple’s secrecy over its products.

Apple is known for requiring suppliers to sign contracts that impose hefty financial penalties if they are found to have leaked sensitive information. One Western expat in China says that the accusation of stealing alone would have been severely damaging for the employee, who was likely on an elite track working in a career job for one of Asia’s premier firms.

Foxconn spokesperson Li Jinming told reporters “regardless of the reason of Sun’s suicide, it is to some extent a reflection of Foxconn’s internal management deficiencies, especially in how to help young workers cope with the psychological pressures of working life at the company.”

Do you agree that this suicide is an indication of something terribly wrong specifically with Foxconn?

Or does it reflect more generally of the ill treatment by non-mainland companies?  (Many non-mainland companies mistreated mainland workers by packing up and leaving without paying its workers when the going began to get tough last year.)

Does it reflect more on Apple’s tendency to be super secretive and paranoid about new product releases?  Do you think Apple’s pressure on its suppliers (or see here) to maintain absolute secrecy created the conditions that pushed Sun to commit suicide?

Or does Sun’s unfortuante death simply reflect China’s general problem involving youth suicide?

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14 Responses to “Chinese worker commits suicide after iPhone prototype goes missing”

  1. raventhorn4000 Says:

    I don’t know if it is true, but I have heard stereotypical opinions among Chinese in mainland and the Bay Area that Taiwanese managers are terrible to work for.

    The general complain is that they adopt a militaristic Japanese corporate culture, with sometimes managers slapping employees openly in the workplace as a form of public humiliation and discipline.

    Mainland Chinese managers are thought to be generally stingy.

    My mother swore to me that she has seen Taiwanese bosses slap employees.

    I don’t think Foxconn has a super stellar rating in China.

    Here’s what Wiki says about them:

    “In June 2006, allegations of Foxconn operating abusive employment practices came to light as reported by Mail that were later denied by Foxconn.[5][6] Apple launched an investigation into such claims.[7] The result was that the claims of mistreatment of employees were judged by the Apple inspection team to be largely unfounded, but the inspection team also discovered that at peak production times some of the employees were working more hours than Apple’s acceptable “Code of Conduct” limit of 60 hours, and 25% of the time workers did not get at least one day off each week.[8] These same workers complained there was not enough overtime in off peak periods.
    The auditing team also found that workers had been punished by being made to stand to attention for long periods,[9] and that all junior employees are subjected to military-style drill.”

    Last part is particularly telling. It’s not some kind of Chinese cultural habit to have “military style drills” in manufacturing companies.

    I think the psychological strain induced by the Foxconn corporate atmosphere is the main contributor.

    Other foreign companies in China have rigorous production schedules too, and high secrecy. Intel, IBM, etc. They don’t do “military style drills” with their Chinese workers.

  2. Steve Says:

    If anyone isn’t familiar with Hon Hai (Foxconn), they are China’s biggest exporter and do work for not only Apple but also Sony, Cisco Systems, IBM, Motorola, Intel, HP/Compaq and Dell, among others. They employ literally hundreds of thousands of workers in China. They are the 800 lb. gorilla over there. Trying to blame Apple for insisting on intellectual protection seems misplaced to me, since all companies desire that. If there is a problem here that is not psychological, it’d be a management problem with Foxconn.

    Right now, no one really knows what happened but I’m sure the story will develop over the next few days. I do know that our employees in China said that the best companies to work for are American or European and that Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese companies were to be avoided if possible. They said the Japanese companies didn’t listen to any non-Japanese opinions or ideas. Korean companies were worse than Japanese and saw their employees as chattel, working them long hours at low pay with few benefits. Chinese and Taiwanese were even worse than Korean. That seemed to be the pecking order that I was told.

  3. Jed Yoong Says:

    Terrible. Hope he wasn’t threatened. Did they hv to beat him up?

  4. Charles Liu Says:

    I have a pre-suicide/HR violation iPhone, so my conscience is clear.

    Is it possible Apple and Foxconn execs don’t know about what a lower level security officer is doing to a line worker (given the worse allegation of “enhanced interrogation” is even true)? The article mentioned both the police and Foxconn is looking into it.

    But I have a feeling somehow that’s just not going to be enough; it has to be a human rights issue that’s prevalant, and in-line with our official narrative of China.

    I hope our Congress doesn’t drag Apple to DC for political self-criticism (like what they did to Yahoo.)

  5. TheWhacksteR Says:

    Well first of all I think a suicide should ultimately only be blamed on the person who committed it. People have choices in facing life. Unless of course there was some serious coercion going on behind the scenes that exacted some bizarre pressure on the guy.

    There is a major issue in how Foxconn took justice into their own hands; they should in no way be allowed to beat up employees. Even detaining them against their will should not be done without consent from legal authorities.

    Foxconn would seem to have a serious problem with corporate governance because an incident such as this, if proven to have actually occurred, is a reflection on its overall organization culture.

    As for Apple, they are obviously the holders of greater bargaining power when it comes to suppliers and it must be investigated if their security policies (implicitly or otherwise) influenced the decisions and stance taken by Foxconn in disciplining its employees.

  6. Raj Says:

    This is sad news, though at the moment my view is that the worker is pretty much responsible for taking his own life. Even if he was assaulted (if that was the cause then the persons involved should be charged accordingly) I don’t see why that would cause him to commit suicide.

    It’s daft to be complaining about Taiwanese or non-Chinese companies’ business practices. Some Chinese companies also treat their employees poorly. Certainly I have heard that European/North American firms are the best to work for in China, as Steve believes. If the situation was created by Foxconn then it suggests better employee rights are needed in China, through new legislation and/or enforcement. Though whether the Chinese government is willing to take on big business is another matter.

  7. FOARP Says:

    Speaking as a former Foxconn employee, I can entirely understand where this comes from. The Taiwanese managers look down on the mainlanders, I’ve never seen any kind of physical violence, but docking of pay or threats of dismissal for minor infractions was commonplace, and the Apple report did mention long periods of standing to attention being used as a punishment. All new recruits (at least low-level workers and office staff) had to do military-style drill for about 2 weeks, the purpose of this was to make them more obedient and easier to control. Most employees think that this is simply how things are done in Taiwanese companies, but I know of no Taiwanese company which does this nowadays.

    Pressure from the management is pretty intense within the company. In my own office many people were doing 12-14 hour days 6-7 days a week, I remember one time I worked 14 days non-stop, averaging about 13 hours a day. One of the guys in our office came down with a stomach ulcer that was pretty obviously stress-related, a couple of others had family break-ups which may well have been related to how long they were away from home for. All of this was driven by the insane performance targets that our manager had set in conference with Terry Guo, at the time I left (2007) all the managers were trying to position themselves ready for Terry Guo’s retirement, and the death of his brother had also left room for promotion.

    There was also a pretty paranoid fixation with security. This hit a particular high-point after the news stories about Foxconn came out in 2006, after which we were told that anyone found on campus with an unauthorised camera (even a phone-camera) or any kind of electronic storage device (including iPods and MP3 players) would be subject to instant dismissal. Yes, the company was and is subject to a great deal of corporate espionage, I myself was offered a bribe by a complete stranger to obtain corporate documents (which I refused), but the protection of IP is only part of the reason why security is so tight. Another big reason is because Foxconn does not want its customers embarrassed by revelations about the conditions at its factories.

    That said, working/living conditions at Foxconn were much better than those at other companies I saw in Longhua, although I never went to see Huawei (Foxconn’s main rival), all the companies I saw were licenced and had all the certification that most western companies expect nowadays, but this did not make them particularly nice places. Foxconn also invests a lot of money in educating its workers and developing their skills. Many Foxconn workers go on to work for other companies, and all are happy to work long hours with the firm as overtime means they will have more money to send their families. Most are migrants from poor areas in the interior, and are fresh out of high-school or university.

    As I said over on my blog, I am against putting any pressure on Apple to ditch Foxconn as a supplier. The idea that you can somehow ‘help’ 300,000 workers by putting some of them on the street is just foolish.

  8. too yellow Says:

    Interesting comments here, if the companies involve in the story isn’t a Taiwanese company working for Apple, but a SOE in China. I would expect a different type of response.

  9. FOARP Says:

    @Too Yellow – There wouldn’t be a response, because you’d never hear about it.

  10. Charles Liu Says:

    Too Yellow @ 8, please see my comment in 4. I too had cringed at the fact this is going to be a field day for the human rights contingency, then I became aware that Foxconn is not a Red Chinese Company(tm).

    If it’s our friend the Taiwanese, no problem let’s be rational and wait for investigation result.

    Foarp, so sure about your “never hear about it”? I only need to find one example to show your “never” wrong:


    Above is a report on a worker suicid from Xaanshi Coking Chemical, an SOE.

  11. FOARP Says:

    @Charles Liu – As always, you simply assume that this is a thread bashing on China without even bothering to examine the facts. When I say “never hear about it” I mean exactly that, just as the vast majority of suicides in China and elsewhere go unremarked. You simply cannot examine anything to do with China except from the narrow confines of your preferred narrative of China as a victim of the US. Yet again, the US government is not involved in this story, and Apple may itself be only incidentally involved, so please drop your obsession with this topic.

  12. BMY Says:

    @too yellow and Foarp,

    I guess you guys never worked for a SOE in mainland. My parents , my parents in law , myself and my wife , we all worked for SOE. You assumption about SOE might be wrong.

    About suiced, let me tell you a story: In the very early of 80s, a employee committed suicide in the work unit my father was working for , the suicide had nothing to do with the work unit. The work unit had to agree with his wife to look after the whole family and had to give the kids jobs when they were older than 16. Of course , there was no social security out side of the work unit.

    The SOE were built under socialist ideology which had same problems with any other similar institute in other countries includes some recently collapsed American companies: too much welfare and low efficient.

    Many of the SOE(including the ones my families, myself worked for) had housing, childcare, school, hospital, etc in the compound for employees and had huge retie population need to support. All of this lead them hard to compete with the companies like Foxcon in the free market and many of them closed down.

    But I don’t know the private enterprises which might be different story.

  13. FOARP Says:

    @BMY – Foxconn is still a new and fast-growing presence in Longhua, so few workers have families, and those who do live off-campus. The company does give healthcare, education etc. to those living on campus, and the factory has its own fire brigade, post office, police stations, hospital etc., all paid for/subsidised by the company. From what I heard when I was leaving they are planning to open a school and childcare services as well. There are communist party meeting rooms in every building, and the CCP HQ on campus is also given pride of place near the centre of the campus.

    I don’t know how this got on to the subject of SOEs, all I said was that this wouldn’t be considered a big affair at an SOE or anywhere else.


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