FOXCONN: The Human Cost of Consumer Culture

In 2010 when 18 people committed suicide at a FOXCONN facility, which supplies parts to Apple and Hewlet-Packard, concerns were raised about the quality of work environment these on-site workers were subjected to and widespread media coverage pressured these companies to find a solution. The question we will debate here is whether the engineers at Apple/HP had a moral obligation to ensure that their manufacturing partner was treating its workers fairly and if the continued partnership is ethical.

Against: The Foxconn Con

The deaths of 18 workers was tragic loss of life and it is the duty of Foxconn to ensure that the circumstances that led to these deaths are avoided in future. However the safety of Foxconn’s workers is not the responsibility of Apple/Hewlet-Packard. It is stated in their own Code of conduct that “Foxconn is committed to uphold the human rights of workers, and to treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the international community and applicable laws and regulations”. As a result they have made a statement that they are liable for ensuring their workers are treated fairly, but this is not legally binding.

After the incident, Foxconn was pressured into finding solutions by the companies it supplied to, such as hiring thousands of new workers to reduce the amount of overtime and improving the housing provided to the workers. These improvements appear to be working since the number of suicides has reduced, as there were 4 suicides in 2011 and 1 in 2012. Statistically the rate of suicide is lower than the rest of China (22 per 100,000) and the peak of suicides in 2010 could have been due to the increased media coverage of these incidents worldwide and locally, referred to as the Werher effect. Adding the fact that the age range of the victims was between 16-25, these people were at a psychologically vulnerable age, under a vast amount of pressure to provide.

From the perspective of the engineer looking at this case using utilitarianism, humanity benefits more from the increased availability of these products, since they could be used to aid others in efforts that are beneficial to humanity.

To answer the question of whether the continued partnership is ethical for a company like Apple, moving their business to another manufacturer until the situation improves would be impractical from a utilitarian perspective. At the time the production rate was roughly 250,000 iPhones and 20,500 iPad per day so a halt in production would cost Foxconn approximately $174,8000 per day. Additionally, the current supply chain is the culmination of many years of progressive improvement in terms of efficiency and so moving the entirety of this production could cripple the company, risking many other people’s jobs. From the company’s perspective this would be an irresponsible decision.

In conclusion from the perspective of the engineer and the company it would be irresponsible of them to stop working with Foxconn since doing so would be riskier for more people’s well-being overall, compared to the well-being of a few . The proposed solution would be to ensure Foxconn continues to enforce its code of conduct and addresses increasing demand from its customers by improvements in efficiency rather than a deterioration in employee welfare.


For: The cost is too damn high

Foxconn is a manufacturer with a distinct set of rules; absolute obedience, discipline and a severe punishment system combined into an almost militarised form of management. Although this method can be highly effective at improving the efficiency of production, it has an obvious negative effect on the workers. In a report by the BBC, an anonymous Foxconn worker said “Workers don’t have much time to communicate with each other and they feel quite lonely. We work six days a week with one day off and every day we work two hours overtime.” This isolation and level of constant work has lead to deterioration in their mental health and as a result they felt that suicide was their only option. Professional engineers, using a deontological framework of ethics, should hold the health and safety of these individuals  paramount. So it would follow that engineers should be responsible for making sure that the methods used to make their products are ethical and moral.

Foxconn did take emergency measures after the incident. Such as placing safety nets around the roofs and on both sides of corridors, ensuring all the windows were covered with wire and locked tight. These measures may make it more difficult for people to commit suicide but as a 16-years-old female employee told a journalist “I feel really constrained at Foxconn since the suicides. Now everywhere there are safety nets, they’ve set up these nets everywhere. It gives you a really constricted feeling. I’m depressed.” These measures obviously fail to improve the environment these individuals work in and it may have even made things worse. The result is that they are now left almost caged like animals which is a demeaning situation.

The worst part of this dire situation is that the Foxconn Human Resources Director attempted to make workers sign a no-suicide pledge, containing a disclaimer. The disclaimer read as follows “Should any injury or death arise for which Foxconn cannot be held accountable (including suicides and self-mutilation), I hereby agree to hand over the case to the company’s legal and regulatory procedures. I myself and my family members will not seek extra compensation above that required by the law.”  This was a blatant attempt to ensure that responsibility for future suicides was placed on the individual worker, and not on Foxconn. This kind of behaviour is irresponsible and gives more evidence as to why something needs to be done.

Therefore, engineers at Apple/HP should require Foxconn to remove the safety nets and spend more time communicating with workers. If Foxconn cannot take care of the mental health of workers and give respects to workers. Engineers should advise Apple/HP to sever partnership between Foxconn and Apple/HP altogether.


65: Robert Hemsley
Laim Loa
Songjie Gong
Chaojie jiang

6 thoughts on “FOXCONN: The Human Cost of Consumer Culture

  1. People who commit suicide in young age because low ability to resist pressure. As an engineer still have responsibility, because they should be more communication with youth and let them face competition authentically, so that they can released their pressure so as to avoid suicide.


  2. I agree with the idea that the engineers at Apple/HP had a moral obligation to ensure that their manufacturing partner was treating its workers fairly
    First of all, in the part1 of the particle, codes like “Foxconn is committed to uphold the human rights of workers, and to treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the international community and applicable laws and regulations” are mentioned.
    In fact, in some countries where the foundries are built, the aware of human rights and relative regulatory system are still way behind. Such codes are only stated to fool public and companies like apple/HP
    Secondly, Foxconn claimed finding ‘solutions such as hiring thousands of new workers to reduce the amount of overtime and improving the housing provided to the workers’ after 18 suicides in 2010. However this is just another statement which fools the public, as what is mentioned in the part2 of the particle: Foxconn just ‘placing safety nets around the roofs and on both sides of corridors, ensuring all the windows were covered with wire and locked tight.’

    I couldn’t approve that using statistic numbers to prove that there is improvement in the work environment, especially for a foundry with bad history. Only one suicide in 2012 doesn’t mean the problem is solved, it means that there still is hidden danger. Any single life deserve respect and care.

    In the last of the part1 of the particle, possible economy lost is mentioned and ‘from the company’s perspective this would be an irresponsible decision.’ I say that foundry like Foxconn couldn’t be more irresponsible. The employee are working in such environment: absolute obedience, discipline and a severe punishment system combined into an almost militarized form of management. (from part2 of the particle) They live like livestock(even worse), almost lost the dignity as a human being ,losing jobs is not quite serious problem to them.

    The part2 of the particle had some strong points that why engineer should help employee in Foxconn. However, feasible and particular plans about how to improve the working environment and assessments for the consequent economy lost are also required.


  3. From a strict sense, suicide is one’s choice and nothing to do with others. While, through contract with staff to avoid responsibility is clearly violating the human rights law. Engineers need to do as much as possible to improve the working environment and communication with employees.


  4. Since large work pressure to choice suicide, which is a kind of irresponsibility for their life. As an employee, there are three options: Firstly, select another easy task. Secondly, learning to release your stress, such as running, play basketball and go shopping. Finally, talking with their boss to reduce the working hours so that getting more free time.
    Using wall and fences to prevent jumping is treating symptoms and not the root cause. Alternatively, engineers should put some love life videos and posters, and to improve the environment of the hostel, where employees feel comfortable from the heart, it can naturally prevent suicide.


  5. The use of “safety nets” demonstrates and unwillingness on Foxconn’s part to tackle to root cause of this issue, and is merely a half baked treatment of the symptoms. As for HP/Apple engineers responsibility, I feel this case demonstrates far more the need for a robust implementation of workers rights by the chinese government itself.


  6. From our stakeholder’s responses several important points have been brought to our attention which we will now outline and discuss how this affects our perspective on the problem. A common point between Riguang Dong and LoonyLeftie was the solutions provided by FOXCONN, the safety nets and fencing, were merely designed to be a temporary fix and did not address the root cause of the issue. we agree with this statement as suicide in an extremely complex issue that cannot be remedied with forced solutions, in fact this may have made things worse. As Yilong Yang and stated suicide statistics do not prove that this method is working as “Only one suicide … doesn’t mean the problem is solved” as stopping people from committing suicide still leaves them in a dire emotional state.

    The Kimmy and Huanlong Lei recommended use of posters and generate improvement of the environment they live in doesn’t go far enough and drastic amounts of internal restructuring are required to being to make things right. Despite all this we still think that it is not HP/Apples responsibility to do this. We are aware that codes of conduct given by FOXCONN are likely there to be used to move blame and that Apple/HP also are aware of this, however the responsibly still lies with FOXCONN as this decided shows they are also aware of what should be done, but they still refuse to change matters. That does not mean however that Apples/HP and their engineers should not help, it may not be there responsibility, but considering the suffering these people are going though, compassion is required.

    By pressuring FOXCONN to restructure their poor work practices though guidance of experienced Engineer some genuine improvement could finally be made. For example, making working arrangements more diversified and ensuring staff are provided with adequate rest time and the possibility of promotion. Additionally even from a utilitarian perspective the by making an effort towards improving the situation Apple could regain some of the customers that it lost in news of this incident.

    In addition,as LoonyLeftie stated, this is not only the responsibility of engineers, but also is the responsibility of the Chinese government. As there are no clear requirements on Chinese law of human right, so the complains of the workers are ignored and FOXCONN can continue their oblivious mistreatment.

    Therefore, Apples/HP should keep cooperating with FOXCONN for the benefit of most of the workers, but this requires FOXCONN following the Engineer’s suggestion to improve the working environment, strengthen the communication with employees and give employees the respect they are entitled to.


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