So I'm looking up more information related to the short story I'm working on and I come across this interesting fact. It's something you'd expect any journalist writing about the infamous "suicide factories" in China where Apple's iPads and iPhones are made to mention, but surprisingly most do not.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I spent some time visiting factories in China - both foreign joint ventures and local enterprises. I also visited villages and farms and have some sense of the context within which these factories exist and just how crappy rural life in China can be. I've also seen railroads teeming with people from the provinces who take a train into a city and then just sit and wait, hoping to get a job in one of these factories. So there is a very special place in my heart for western intellectuals and activists who urge others to boycott goods produced by "sweatshop labor" and do not respect the choices of people to work in places that seem horrific to somebody who comes from a wealthy, developed country.
So here's the fact: The Foxconn factories in China, which manufacture products for Apple, among other companies, have gotten a lot of attention because of poor (by western standards) working conditions, and because some of the workers in the factories had committed suicide and others had threatened to do the same if their demands for better conditions were not met. Employees in these factories were asked to sign a pledge that they would not commit suicide and some of the factories installed "suicide prevention nets" to keep people from throwing themselves out of windows.
That's the part everyone who's heard this story already knows. Here's what you probably don't know: Out of a total of 800,000 workers (or possibly 1.2 million, but I'm going with the smaller number to make this as conservative as possible), 18 Foxconn workers attempted suicide in 2010 and 14 were successful. That's 14 suicides out of (again, conservatively) 800,000, or a rate of 1.75 out of 100,000. While getting accurate figures for anything in China is always a challenge, estimates of the nationwide suicide rate for China range from 13.9 out of every 100,000 (the Chinese government's official rate in 1999) to 30.3 per 100,000. I'll go with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's rate of 22.23 per 100,000.
So, again using pretty conservative figures, the suicide rate at the Foxconn factories is around 1.75 out of 100,000, while nationwide it is closer to 22 out of 100,000 - more than ten times higher. You'd think that westerners who care about working conditions in the third world would be applauding Foxconn for providing a work environment where people are far less likely to want to kill themselves than are average Chinese people. Somehow I don't think we'll be hearing much about it.