Foxconn gets the pompoms out to raise morale at 'suicide factory'

Young workers who normally spend their days assembling iPhones and other high-tech gadgets packed a stadium at their massive campus yesterday, waving pompoms and shouting slogans at a rally to raise morale following a string of suicides at the company's heavily regimented factories. The outreach to workers shows how the normally secretive Foxconn Technology Group has been shaken by the suicides – and the bad press they have drawn.

"For a long period of time I think we were blinded by success," said Louis Woo, special assistant to Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn's parent company. "We were kind of caught by surprise."

The company has raised wages, hired counsellors and installed safety nets on buildings to catch jumpers. However, Woo acknowledged there will be challenges in preventing such tragedies in a work force of 920,000 spread across 16 factories in China, all of which are to have morale-boosting rallies. Woo expected the company would grow to 1.3 million workers sometime next year.

The rally yesterday took place at Foxconn's mammoth industrial park in Shenzhen, which employs 300,000 and where most of the suicides have taken place. The latest suicide – the 12th this year – occurred on 4 August when a 22-year-old woman jumped from her factory dormitory in eastern Jiangsu province.

Twenty thousand workers dressed in costumes ranging from cheerleader outfits to Victorian dresses filled the stadium at the factory complex, which was decorated with colourful flags bearing messages such as "Treasure your life, love your family."

"In the past, from the time we started work until when we finished, we would not really have a break. But now we've been given time to rest," said 18-year-old worker Huang Jun.

Woo said it was common for workers to have 80 hours a month of overtime, but Foxconn was aiming to reduce the workload and become the first company in the industry to keep overtime to a maximum of 36 hours a month – as required by Chinese law.

Labour activists say success has come in part from driving workers hard with a rigid management style, operating a too-fast assembly line and requiring excessive overtime. The company denies treating employees inhumanely.

The troubles at Foxconn came to light amid broader Labour unrest in China and highlighted Chinese workers' growing dissatisfaction with the low wages and pressure-cooker working conditions that helped turn the country into an international manufacturing powerhouse.