Inside Foxconn City: A Vast Electronics Factory Under Suicide Scrutiny Employees pass a security station before entering or leaving Foxconn City. Foxconn Technology Group is one of the world's largest electronics manufacturers. It makes hardware for a prestigious list of clients, including Apple, HP, Dell, Nokia and Nintendo. Yet its workers have compared it to a prison. Some say they're forced to work illegal overtime and night shifts, have been subjected to "corporal violence" and exposed to hazardous materials, and have their privacy invaded by management. And employees say they are still underpaid despite the promise of an across-the-board 30 percent raise earlier this year. Capping the list of woes at the Taiwanese manufacturer, Reuters reported earlier this month that a 23-year-old employee of Foxconn had jumped to his death. It was the 13th reported Foxconn employee suicide of the year. Foxconn has tried to manage perceptions where it can, if not actually confront the oddly tragic trend within the company. On Sept. 4, on assignment with Bloomberg Businessweek, photographer Thomas Lee joined other journalists on a tour of Foxconn City. Lee observed underused facilities, an eerily quiet workforce, an ever-ambitious chairman and the flow of migrants to long hours on the production lines. (Gizmodo's Joel Johnson recently made his own visit to Foxconn's dorms while on assignment for Wired.) "The security guard is younger than many of the workers, who actually walked in and out without being stopped," says Lee. "Most of the time he gave directions to people, which was helpful. Each employee has an ID card for scanning on entry and exit, so they are tracked in that manner." A production-line employee. The facility known as Foxconn City has an estimated workforce of 420,000 employees, a number equivalent to the population of Oakland, California. Its official name is Lounghua Business Park. Located in the southern province of Szechuan, it is Foxconn's oldest and largest factory complex. In the first five months of this year, 12 Foxconn employees took their own lives at the industrial park. By May, under the scrutiny of the global media, Foxconn and its enigmatic chairman Terry Gou began taking practical steps to address the unprecedented spate of worker suicides: Workers' dormitory buildings were skirted with suicide nets, crisis hotlines were established, and wages increased â€” although in some locations barely to a living wage. The company also staged solidarity rallies for workers. Part of the Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision Industries, Foxconn ranks 112th among Global Fortune 500 Companies and employs nearly 1 million people within China. Dominant in a growing market, Foxconn forecasts its workforce will be 1.3 million by 2011. Foxconn manufactures some of the most sought-after electronic parts in the industry for a long list of corporate clients. Three of those clients â€” Apple, Dell and HP â€” began inquiries into the working conditions at Foxconn in May. "Most employees are migrants from rural communities," says photographer Thomas Lee, "coming to work in an economic zone, which is now a manufacturing hub, so thereâ€™s going to be a disconnection. It must feel a lot like study abroad; not being in one's home puts a strain on an individual. Are they clinically depressed? I donâ€™t think so. Some of them like the challenge; they want to make it." "I am originally from Taiwan so I speak fluent Mandarin. I spoke with a few female employees. They said their wages were fair and that they have fantastic facilities. They also all believe the media doesnâ€™t have the full story. There is a chance though that a memo went out telling the workforce that people from the media were on site." Locker and security check point in the stairwell of a production facility in Foxconn City. Opponents of the Foxconn management regime say there is a link between stressful work conditions and the suicides. "They blame the suicides simply on psychological, mental or even individual issues," says Hu Douxing, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Technology in an interview with Al Jazeera. "But they [Foxconn] don't want to begin dealing with what the management is doing â€” workplace bullying and other problems." The suicide rate for China stands at 12 for every 100,000 people per year. With a workforce of 420,000 and 13 suicides this calendar year, the suicide rate at Foxconn is approximately one-quarter the national average. (It should also be noted that four other suicide attempts were made at Foxconn in 2010. The four employees survived with injuries.) "The constant monitoring was unnerving, but everything was well-organized," says photographer Thomas Lee. "There were obvious safety precautions in place and plenty of protective clothing. The place was like a hospital. The sterile environment only added to the unease at times." A supervisor monitors Foxconn workers. The working conditions at Foxconn are similar to production line work environments in other Chinese factories. Photographer Thomas Lee observed that Foxconn has safer and cleaner facilities than those he's familiar with from other factories. Production line work has always been monotonous in China, and Foxconn is no different. Still, the suicides have brought to global attention the need for legitimate scrutiny of the treatment of workers in Chinese manufacturing plants. On Oct. 12, the Hong Kongâ€“based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (.pdf) reported that "Researchers found that Foxconn continued to violate the law in terms of overtime payment and working hours." SACOM alleged employees weren't informed of pay raises, that overtime was expected but uncompensated, and that student interns employed as cheap labor accounted for 50 percent of the workforce in some departments. In a three-page statement, Foxconn "categorically rejected" SACOM's accusations (.pdf) of low pay, overtime abuse and hazardous work spaces. According to Foxconn, interns account for 7.6 percent of the workforce. The company says that figure has never risen above 15 percent, even during the summer when it employs many student interns. Foxconn and SACOM have staked out their positions. While Foxconn claims to adhere to all workplace laws, SACOM doesn't consider the laws the gauge by which corporations should measure themselves, but rather that corporations such as Foxconn should set their own higher standards. "China is a fast-growing economy; minimum legal standards as a safety net cannot guarantee decent living conditions in the cities," reported SACOM. On such a global scale, responsibility is a contested virtue. Along the supply chain are workers, supervisors, executive management, shareholders, clients and, last but not least, consumers. Lee's experience, shown here, is one more account to add to the pile of conflicting narratives about the reality for Foxconn's employees.