CHELSEA — Foxconn is a Taiwanese company you have probably never heard of. And yet they have 800,000 employees. They employ 2,000 singers, dancers and gym trainers to entertain them. They put 6,000 pigs to the knife every day to feed their 400,000 employees on one site. That site covers 1.2 square miles.
Because so many people — between 9 and 11 this year — have taken their own lives at this Shenzhen site in southern China, the company has installed new 3-meter fences around the dormitories where employees sleep. The fences are meant to stop people climbing onto buildings to kill themselves.
They’re not having the desired effect. The alleged 10 to 12 hour shifts and military-style discipline probably don’t help either.
Young people in China are undoubtedly attracted to the work. And what is 800,000 people in a country where estimates are more 90 urban areas have populations of more that 1 million people?
However there are important lessons to be learned from industrial research in other countries. There are also some basic ideas of how to manage people, that companies like this, in the new industrial heartland can take action on.
The Hawthorne Lighting Factory experiments in Chicago almost 100 years ago might give Foxcomm some ideas. Research by MIT at what was then the biggest factory in the world pointed to how productivity increased with a little autonomy.
As I have been writing this the story has taken on a greater significance. The company has been touring journalists around its plants. The Chief Executive explains the 1.5 million square meters of netting that is being put around dormitories to catch falling people this way: “Although this is a stupid measure, at least in the future if another tragedy happens it may save a life.
Some of my former colleagues might say this is all a bad PR story. Considering the shear numbers of people involved, the suicide rates at Foxcomm are not far off the Chinese national average. (That average is roughly the same as Canada, the USA, Germany and Australia, before you get too sniffy.) But companies, like militaries in combat zones, cannot claim the the people under their influence are simply reflecting the average of the population. There is a duty of care that runs in both directions at work.
Foxcomm and it’s concerned partners need to start to review that and find a way out.
It can be done.