Working in China's burgeoning manufacturing sector is proving exceedingly tough for many Chinese workers. Long hours and intense pressure to quickly churn out the latest high-tech gizmos destined for overseas markets have led to protests and even suicides among some workers, according to media reports.
Though some reports have captured scant attention in the West, the purported threat last week of a mass suicide by scores of workers at a plant in Wuhan that produces Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 game console are once again focusing attention on working conditions at the Chinese plants.
About 300 workers are said to have threatened to throw themselves off the roof of the building after their demands for increased pay were denied.
The threats were in reaction to a Jan. 2 ultimatum issued by Foxconn, telling the employees that they could either quit their positions and take a severance or keep their jobs and receive no additional payment, according to a report posted at Taiwan's WantChinaTimes.
According to the account, most employees opted to quit with pay, but the company reneged on the offer and no payments were issued; employees returned the next day in an uproar and staged a protest on the plant's roof. Wuhan's mayor is said to have eventually intervened and talked the workers out of their suicide plan.
Photos of the protest have been circulated by Chinese media and on social networking sites, PC World reports, showing a large crowd of workers gathered on the building's rooftop, with fire trucks parked below,
In 2010, 14 workers reportedly committed suicide at Foxconn plants in China, and the Taiwan-based company has since been under increased scrutiny. In addition to long working hours and low pay, workers also are said to have complained about discrimination.
For its part, Microsoft said in a statement that it "takes working conditions in the factories that manufacture its products very seriously, and we are currently investigating this issue."
In an effort to stem the suicides, Foxconn has forced employees to sign a pledge not to take their own lives and installed nets outside factory dormitories to deter potential jumpers, PCMag.com reports.
Working conditions and employee treatment in China's factories recently were the focus of a story on "This American Life." The report examined whether Foxconn and other Chinese companies live up to the social responsibility standards that Western companies such as Microsoft and Apple require of manufacturing partners overseas.
Reports cited in the radio program say workers in a Foxconn factory that produces the popular Apple iPad electronic tablet "frequently endure excessive and forced overtime in order to gain a higher wage" and may "have to skip dinner or work on unpaid overtime shifts."
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