Friday, June 4, 2010

Foxconn suicides exceptionally low for China

I wrote before about the need to place statistics in context to make them meaningful. The recent news coverage of a spate of suicides in a Chinese Foxconn factory shows us why. Foxconn produces several Apple products, including the iPad, and there has been some concern among consumers that they are paying for a cruel work system. The Telegraph had this to say:

The reasons for the sudden spate of suicides remain unclear. However, the military-style working regime at Foxconn's Longhua plant, in which more than 300,000 people work, has been heavily criticised.

Workers are forbidden to talk on the production line, even in their short breaks, and many have complained of feeling lonely and alienated inside the giant factory.

In addition, the enormous demand for some products – including the 2m unit-selling iPad – appears to have placed an intolerable strain on Foxconn workers, who are quitting the Longhua factory at the rate of 15,000 a month.

Well that does not sound promising. Foxconn has had 16 attempted suicides so far this year.

Yet the number out of context is meaningless. The first question journalists should ask is: how does this suicide rate compare with non-workers? Bloomberg Business Week thought to ask:

But among the flurry of reports about Foxconn in the international media, one thing appears to have been missed: The suicide rate among the company's workers is well below the national average.

Between 2000 and 2006, China averaged 15.05 suicide-related deaths per 100,000 people in the country, according to a Nov. 2008 research paper published in The Lancet medical journal. The 10 deaths so far this year at Foxconn put it far below the national average considering it employs over 540,000 workers in China.

This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card for Foxconn - conditions may still be rough there - but it throws the whole debate into a new direction. Foxconn workers are less likely to commit suicide than others, so why the uproar?


  1. exactly, people especially in the media do not put statistics in its context, and people assume that if the frequency of any event being reported in the media is increased, that means it has actually become very frequent or very serious, something similar happened in India at the beginning of this year.

    A movie called 3 idiots became the highest grosser in Indian Movie history. The movie was derived from a novel, and its about the life of 3 friends in an engineering college and how they deal with the pressure of society. now the interesting part is, in the movie, a fourth student commits suicide due to academic failure, and all of a sudden there was a spate of student suicides being reported all over the media, people started blaming academic pressure(that issue is real and it should not be ignored),some people blamed the movie for influencing students to take that step, my gut feeling was that the media was just reporting more suicide stories than they normally would and especially suicides by students and the youth, the mumbai newspapers reported an average of 1-2 suicides a day, (many of these were not students), now if we were to assume that the student and youth population(ages 12-25) make up 30% of mumbai's 20 million population(a very conservative guess)
    and that all student suicides were reported in the media,that would make it around 500-600 suicides a year in a population of 6 million, giving the rate at 8-10 suicides a year out of 100,000, which is less than the national average of 12 suicides per 100,000, what i think happened was that the media was just more likely to publish student suicide articles when it was the "In" thing in the news. The phase got over, there are no suicide articles in the paper anymore.

  2. I can totally imagine Rohan. I noticed a similar panic a few yeas ago when two English girls were kidnapped and murdered. For a while the newspapers were filled with such stories (abduction was "topical"). I remember hearing one on the radio about a car that had slowed down near where some kids were playing, before leaving. PANIC! :P The abduction story had created a terrifying context to interpret rather banal events with.

    I've noticed this with stories about Muslims in Europe recently too. The rising interest in and concern over Muslims in Europe after 9/11 has created powerful narratives to interpret news stories. For example, supposing a teacher had decided to have a mohawk shaved into his head. In many schools, this would mean sacking. No big deal. Today, if a Muslim teacher decided to wear hijab or niqab in school and was sacked, there would be great excitement over the story, along with editorials about freedom and religion and integration.

    But I think journalists should question these populist narratives and resist jumping on alarmist bandwagons.


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