Apple, and Foxconn’s "Suicide Cluster"

There are reports today that a Foxconn employee in the Chinese city of Shenzhen has committed suicide. It means that the woman, 24, is the sixth Foxconn employee to commit suicide this year (and there are three more employees who unsuccessfully attempted suicide). Perhaps best known is that a male Foxconn employee, 25 years old, killed himself after being asked questions about a missing iPhone prototype.

And that’s why this sad story gets so much attention. To some, the connection to Apple’s secretive ways is easy to make. After all, would it be any surprise if working with one of the most militantly guarded companies on the planet led some Foxconn employees to destructive levels of pressure and strain, even to the point of suicide? The narrative fits together so neatly.

Or does it. Because the assertion of a "suicide cluster" is something that need not be accepted uncritically. Let’s do the sad math. The rate of suicide in China is, according to the WHO, 13.0 per 100,000 for men, and 14.8 per 100,000 for women (China is one of the few countries where the female suicide rate exceeds the male one). Given 300,000 employees at Foxconn’s massive Shenzhen facility, we should, therefore, expect somewhere between 39 and 43 suicides a year — tragedies, but also the interplay of known suicide rates and a large company population.

So, what does this tell us? We have had 6 suicides so far this year among Foxconn employees in Shenzhen, and we are not even halfway through the year. It is sad but true that annualized we would end up considerably lower than the 39 suicides figure cited above. In other words, it is entirely likely that Foxconn, however difficult its work environment, and however stressful its Apple relationship,  is seeing a "suicide cluster" that is happening just by tragic chance.