LONGHUA, China (Reuters) - Dressed in white, the traditional color of mourning in China, the father of 19-year-old Ma Xiangqian weeps outside the gates of a sprawling electronics complex. His wife and daughter kneel alongside.
Ma is one of nine workers who have died in apparent suicides at tightly guarded factory complexes this year, raising questions about the harsher aspects of blue-collar life around southern China’s Pearl River Delta -- dubbed the workshop to the world.
The parents say Ma, who was found dead at the bottom of a stairway at the campus in January, died under mysterious circumstances. They want to know why.
“All we want to know is the truth. We don’t even want compensation,” said the father.
The Longhua factory belongs to Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, the Taiwan giant that is contracted to make computers, game consoles, handphones and other electronics gadgets for Apple Inc and many major global brands.
Hon Hai Chairman Terry Gou, one of Taiwan’s best known businessmen, on Wednesday led a rare media tour of the Chinese complex, part of an unprecedented publicity blitz to counter a growing backlash over the suspected suicides.
“I‘m very concerned about this. I can’t sleep every night,” said Gou. “From a scientific point of view, I‘m not confident we can stop every case. But, as a responsible employer, we have to take up the responsibility of preventing as many as we can.”
The stakes are high for Hon Hai and its Foxconn unit that makes mobile phones for Nokia and other global names, amid growing calls from activists for a global boycott of products like Apple’s latest generation iPhone.
Hon Hai’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of electronics makers -- from Apple, Hewlett-Packard Co, Dell and global mobile makers.
“It’s a crucial issue that Hon Hai has to deal with right away. If not, Nokia, HP and Apple might cut their orders as pressure against buying their products could be mounting,” said Andrew Deng, an analyst with Taiwan International Securities.
Hon Hai and Foxconn have come under fire for their harsh and secretive corporate culture.
Workers outside the Longhua complex reacted angrily to a letter they say they were abruptly asked to sign last night, including a clause saying the company would pay no more than the legal minimum for injuries sustained outside the workplace.
Confronted with the letter, Gou apologized and said he was taking it back, calling the language inappropriate.
During the tour, Gou preferred to emphasize the worker amenities that include an Olympic-size swimming pool, banks, bakeries, tree-lined streets and new dormitories catering to many of the 400,000 workers employed by Hon Hai in southern China.
He also noted that most of the suspected suicides involved workers who’d been at the company for less than six months. Another 19-year-old, who fell to his death at the Foxconn plant earlier this week, had only been hired last month.
Inside the factories, where reporters were allowed to talk freely with workers, many acknowledged the pressures of the job and noted many employees came from China’s less developed areas.
“Maybe they can’t take the stress here,” said Tang Wenying, a young line supervisor from central China’s Hunan province.
“This is a good place to work because they treat us better than many (other) Chinese factories.”
Apple said on Wednesday it was saddened by the apparent suicides, and would continue to inspect all facilities where its products are made.
“We are saddened and upset by the recent suicides at Foxconn,” the maker of iPhones and iPads said in its first public comment on the deaths.
“We are in direct contact with Foxconn senior management and we believe they are taking this matter very seriously,” Apple said in a statement, adding that its own investigating team were carrying out independent evaluations of what Foxconn was doing to “address these tragic events.”
Separately, Dell said it investigates any reports of poor working conditions in its supply chain.
“We expect our suppliers to employ the same high standards we do in our own facilities. We enforce these standards through a variety of tools, including the Electronics Industry code of conduct, business reviews with suppliers, self-assessments and audits,” it said in a statement.
The Taiwan Affairs office of China’s State Council called on Foxconn to fully investigate the suicides, but said Taiwanese investment in mainland China would not be affected.
“We hope the relevant companies will care for their employees more,” said Yang Yi, spokesman for China’s top policymaking body on Taiwan.
Additional reporting by James Pomfret in HONG KONG and Faith Hung and Jonathan Standing in TAIPEI