Saturday, August 07, 2010

Suicides: Foxconn, Cornell and the Golden Gate Bridge

Wrong on So Many Levels

Foxconn Installs Antijumping Nets at Hebei Plants. Anti-jumping nets?

Having built safety nets along its employee dormitories after a series of jumping suicides at its Shenzhen production plant, Taiwanese electronics manufacturing giant Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., which uses the trade name Foxconn, is now installing the same sort of nets at some of its inland factories

If things are so bad that people would rather hurl themselves off of tall buildings than work in a Foxconn factory (or even just go find a factory job down the street) it seems like Foxconn should put the nets on the doors of their factories to catch people from going in.
The 42,000 employees in the Shenzhen plant assemble nearly 70% of the iPhones and iPads for Apple. There have been 10 factory workers who jumped to their deaths in the first 5 months of 2010 at the Shenzhen plant

It is wrong on many levels. I do think Apple has some responsibility. I do think human psychology around suicide is complex and confusing and cause and affect can be confused by correlation not cause.

Putting the nets there sure looks lame, and like non-root cause problems solving. But if they actually save lives then what? There are nets below the Golden Gate bridge (also to reduce suicide deaths) after quite a bit of debate. It sure takes a long time for them to act. 2 years later and still barely moving forward.

Cornell University has a long term problem with suicide jumpers, 6 this year - and they have installed suicide prevention fences:

Several suicides clustered in a close proximity of time and location, such as what Cornell experienced in late winter, are known to cause an "imitation" effect on vulnerable members of the community, elevating their risk of suicide. No one knows for sure how long the elevated risk can last, but the mental health professionals Cornell consulted said that it is very likely to continue for the foreseeable future and strongly recommended that temporary barriers remain in place while permanent means restriction measures are explored and designed.

I am not at all sure the suicide prevention nets at Foxconn are a bad idea. They certainly "look" (visually, and the image they convey is not being very root cause problem solving like) bad.

If we examine Cornell and Foxconn together what answers might we find? I think there are things to fix at Foxconn, but it is very easy for those of us the USA to just paint management as villainous. I don't think we will paint Cornell professors as villainous. Foxconn absolutely needs to do much more than put up nets. But whether putting up nets is good short term fix (like Cornell's) I think is at least debatable.

Problem solving can be quite complex. Especially with something like suicide where the causes are very likely to be varied and systemic. I doubt you will find one root cause. You may find at Foxcon: low wages (and the pressures that brings on as one factor - Foxconn doubled wages recently), lack of joy in work (to an extreme level - truly feeling like a cog in a machine with no hope), "imitation effect", homesickness (moving to the factor hundreds or miles from home and living in a dorm), youngness (hormones, lack of life experience, exaggerated importance... - similar at Cornell and Foxconn), perhaps abusive practices in the factory, perhaps other psychology in the factory (low light, long hours, painful work...), perhaps bullying of peers...

I think a good systemic solution will look at what I think all management should look at: practicing respect for people and creating joy in work. But that isn't an overnight solution, even if they wanted to pursue that strategy (which I don't see any evidence that they do). It will take time to change the system. It is something that I think can address the systemic root causes.

Related: Auto Manufacturing in 2009: USA 5.7 million, Japan 7.9 million, China 13.8 million - Motivate or Eliminate De-Motivation - USA, China and Japan Lead Manufacturing Output in 2008 - China’s Manufacturing Economy