Apple, Foxconn, and the Suicide Scandal

Back in 2010, many reports appeared regarding a spate of suicides at Foxconn’s Foxconn City industrial park in Shenzhen, China. Because Foxconn is a major supplier to Apple, these suicides garnered wide media attention. There were an estimated 18 Foxconn employee suicide attempts in 2010 resulting in at least 14 deaths. With an employee population reported variously as 230,000, 300,000, or 450,000, this results in a suicide rate varying from 3.1 to 6.1 deaths per 100,000 employees for the year.

The suicide rate in the general Chinese population for 2012 [Wikipedia, World Health Organization] was 7.8 per 100,000. Surprisingly, the rate for the USA was higher at 12.1. This means that the suicide rate at the factory was lower than the general population of China. The Foxconn suicide rate is considerably lower than the suicide rate in the general population of the USA. It only takes a quick web search to find this data, and yet very few reports put the suicides at Foxconn in the perspective of these national suicide rates.

To be fair, it would be better to have the suicide rates from 2010 instead of 2012. Likewise, it’d be better to compare the Foxconn rates with equal populations. For example, we could compare them to the suicide rate at other large Chinese electronics factories. We could also compare them to similar jobs in the USA. Without that comparison data, we need to be careful about the conclusions we should draw. Perhaps high tech workers should have a lower suicide rate than the general population in China. Or, consider that the suicide rate among teenagers and those in their early 20’s is the highest of all age groups. In that case, if Foxconn tends to have young employees, their suicide rate would be expected to be higher than the general population. Because we don’t have that data, it’s difficult to tell whether the Foxconn suicide rate was worrisome or praiseworthy. And yet, that didn’t seem to trouble the general media at all. That’s why it pays to be sceptical of the news media.