The iPad Factory Suicides: A Fact CheckS

To be suspicious of Apple manufacturer Foxconn, especially when it comes to treatment of workers, is reasonable: They have issues. But today's Telegraph report about a spate of suicide attempts at Foxconn's Longhua plant can be explained away by statistics.

The story, cynically titled "Four suicide attempts in a month at Foxconn, the makers of the iPad," effortlessly blends readers' established (and well founded) suspicions of the company with the release of the iPad, invoking last year's confounding and legitimately suspicious suicide of Sun Danyong, who fell to his death after allegedly misplacing a secret iPhone prototype. In the last month, four workers have apparently attempted suicide, all by jumping from their dormitories. It's unclear from the story's vague phrasing if two or just one of the workers died, but still: four attempts. A bizarre claim by Foxconn reps that one of the victims had been "fighting with her boyfriend." A patchy past. The iPad. The perfect news story. As Telegraph writer Malcolm Moore puts it, "[A] spate of four suicide attempts within a month is a sign that something is rotten in the Foxconn plant."

Here's the problem: As acknowledged in the article, Foxconn's Longhua plant is believed to house 300,000 people. China's suicide rate was last recorded by the WHO at 13.9 deaths per 100,000 people per year, though it is suspected by many to be higher—later estimates peg the number at 23. The lower number would translate to 41.7 suicides per year, or about 3.5 per month, per 300,000 people; the higher estimate would translate to 69 deaths a year, or 5.8 suicides per month. And remember, the report only claims that one—maybe two—of the victims actually died.

In any case, for the Telegraph to report that there were "four suicide attempts in a month" at Foxconn's factory as if it were a shocking story is disingenuous innuendo, because as far as I can tell, this is below the national suicide rate. The international media wouldn't report that the Chinese city of, say, Chiayi, which is also home to around 300,000 people, saw four of its citizens attempt to commit suicide last month, because it's not news. They don't make iPads in Chiayi.

Foxconn deserves scrutiny, as do the largely out-of-sight hardware manufacturers that we all indirectly support when we buy our gadgets. (And with repeated labor problems and multiple allegations of violence against workers and press. they've earned it.) And if suicide is endemic, or if the circumstances of campus suicides are suspicious, the world should know. But crying wolf and implying wrongdoing without almost any evidence will only dull peoples' interest, and make it harder to talk about real problems in the future. [Telegraph]