Apple: Foxconn "saved lives" with suicide prevention efforts

Apple required screen maker Wintek to stop using n-hexane and improve ventilation after 137 employees were sickened last year

Apple on Wednesday commended Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn for setting up a 24-hour care center, installing large nets on buildings and other measures that have "definitely saved lives" after a spate of suicides at manufacturing facilities in China last year.

Foxconn, which assembles iPhones, iPods and other gadgets for Apple, came under scrutiny last year after a string of at least 13 suicide attempts at its production facilities in China, many of which occured at a sprawling complex in Shenzhen.

The company was pilloried in the media over allegations of poor working conditions and bad management.

Apple reported no such issues in its Apple Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report, published Wednesday. The company requires its manufacturing partners to live up to specific standards of conduct and regularly investigates and issues a yearly report on its findings.

The company sent COO Tim Cook and other Apple executives to Foxconn's Shenzhen factory in June of last year to better understand conditions at the site and see what measures Foxconn was putting in place to prevent further suicides. Apple also set up its own team of suicide prevention experts to work with Foxconn and offer guidance for further improvements.

"The team commended Foxconn for taking quick action on several fronts simultaneously... [and] found that Foxconn’s response had definitely saved lives," Apple said in the report.

The team also suggested several areas for improvement, such as better training for hotline staff and care center counselors, as well as better monitoring to ensure effectiveness, the report says. Apple also noted that Foxconn is expanding manufacturing operations to other parts of China so its workers can live closer to home. Foxconn has said workers want to live closer to home instead of traveling long distances to live and work at its factories.

Foxconn is the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer, and it's size often puts it in the spotlight. In addition to Apple products, it assembles the PlayStation 3 for Sony, the Wii for Nintendo, PCs for Hewlett-Packard and Dell, and mobile phones for Nokia.

The company put several measures in place to prevent suicides last year, including pay raises for workers throughout China, inviting Buddhist monks and psychiatrists to provide counseling, and more. It also strongly defended its conduct.

Despite the media frenzy around the suicide issue, blaming Foxconn is a tricky issue. The national suicide rate in China is 15.05 per 100,000 people, according to a Nov. 2008 study published in The Lancet medical journal. Foxconn employs over 540,000 workers in China and only 10 of the 13 suicide attempts at its China facilities last year were successful. Although tragic, the figure is far below the national average.

Foxconn is the trade name of Hon Hai Precision Industry, which operates a number of companies under the umbrella of the Foxconn Technology Group.

Apple cited other problems with suppliers in the yearly report.

Wintek, a Taiwanese company that manufactures screens for Apple products, caught global attention when 137 workers were sickened through the use of a chemical, n-hexane, last year. Apple required the company to stop using the chemical and put a better ventilation system in place.

Apple censured a number of companies for issues ranging from health and safety violations to the use of underage workers, failure to pay correctly and the use of hazardous materials or materials from conflict regions last year.

The U.S. electronics giant conducted audits of 127 facilities around the world last year, revealing 37 violations serious enough to warrant an end to their business relationship.

After further investigation and discussions with management at those facilities, Apple terminated its business with three companies; one for the use of underage workers, another for falsifying payrolls and one for bribery, according to the report.

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Tags business issuesFoxconn ElectronicsAppleHon Hai Precision Industry

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Dan Nystedt

IDG News Service
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