Workers threaten mass suicide at company that supplies Apple

Fresh labour dispute at Foxconn factory turns spotlight on working conditions in China

Chinese workers are flexing their muscles as rising prices make their daily grind impossible to manage – and the focus is again on the factories that churn out many of the world's most popular gadgets, with aggrieved workers at Foxconn protesting by threatening mass suicides.

The Taiwanese manufacturing giant that produces electronics for companies including Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell said workers had demonstrated by threatening to throw themselves off the roof of a factory in Wuhan on 4 January. About 150 employees took part in the protest at the plant, which makes X-Box 360 video games.

The threat struck a nerve. Over the past few years, Foxconn has been hit by a number of suspected suicides at its plants with workers mostly jumping off dormitory buildings.

Shenzhen and other factory towns have been transfixed by the deaths, which have opened up a wider discussion about the human cost of breakneck economic growth.

This particular face-off was eventually resolved by the local mayor, who told the protesting workers to leave the roof at 9pm after hours of negotiation, local media reported.

The protest is reported to have come about after a deal between Foxconn and the workers that involved a month's wages as severance pay for those who wanted to quit.

But staff who opted to leave and accepted compensation allegedly found out a day later that Foxconn bosses had changed their minds, leaving departing employees out of work and out of pocket, prompting the threat of suicides.

Headed by the Taiwanese tycoon Terry Gou, Foxconn employs 1.2 million people.

But the general trend at the company is towards increased automation. It already uses about 10,000 robots and has stated that it wants to become more focused on machines.

Foxconn chiefs said robots will also help to dampen rising wage costs, as surging inflation drives higher pay demands in China. By some estimates, robots can do about half of the jobs carried out by the employees, many of them young people from China's provinces.

Moving up the manufacturing value chain is a big obsession in China these days, as the country tries to transform itself into a centre for innovation.

Although Apple has often dominated headlines related to Foxconn in the past, Microsoft was in focus as a result of the Wuhan protests because of the software company's link to the products in question. The American company responded by saying that it took conditions at factories that manufacture its products seriously and was investigating the issue.

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