A fight involving thousands of workers at Foxconn Technology Group, a major supplier of computer components to global electronics companies, including Hewlett Packard (HPQ), Sony (SNE), Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT), sent 40 people to the hospital and resulted in operations being suspended at a Taiyuan, China factory. Foxconn is owned by Hon Hai Precision Industry Company, the largest contract manufacturer of electronic goods in the world. The factory employs nearly 80,000 people and produces the back casing of the iPhone, amongst other things. All told, Foxconn employs more than one million people in China.
“A personal dispute between several employees escalated into an incident involving 2,000 workers at approximately 11pm last night in a privately managed dormitory near our manufacturing facility in Taiyuan in Shanxi province,” according to a Foxconn statement.
Foxconn spokesman Louis Woo told Reuters that the plant is closed today for investigation, but no timeframe has been given for how long the shutdown will last. There have been mixed reports as to the cause of the brawl – including a clash between workers from different Foxconn factories and security guards beating two employees - that resulted in 5,000 police being dispatched to control the melee.
Foxconn used to be a low-profile company even with its enormous size. Its industrial revolution approach to manufacturing has put the company in the hot seat in recent years. Employees live in dormitories next to the factory and work compulsory long shifts.
The Taipei-based company has been under scrutiny since 13 employees committed suicide in 2010 followed by several more in 2011 and criticisms of low wages and poor labor practices, including work safety violations, surfaced. In May 2011, two workers will killed in an explosion as a Foxconn plant in Chengdu.
Back in June, about 100 workers went on a rampage at a Chengdu plant in southwestern China. On September 12, news hit that another Foxconn worker committed suicide. Foxconn said that the employee “fell to his death” and that police were investigating.
Chinese state-run media sources China Daily and Shanghai Daily reported earlier this month that Foxconn had forced university students to take internships at its factories to help make the new iPhone 5. The company denied the allegations, noting that an audit by the Fair Labor Association, a labor firm hired by Apple to investigate claims found "no evidence that any interns were pressured to participate.” Foxconn adversaries contest that the referenced audits were performed much earlier in the year.
"Clearly there is deep seated frustration and anger among the employees and no outlet, apart from violence, for that frustration to be released," said Geoff Crothall, communication director at Hong Kong labor rights group China Labour Bulletin.
Despite ongoing protests arguing that Foxconn still treats its employees with a sweatshop mentality, other reports show that Foxconn has been making changes in its business practices, partially a result of Apple sending the ombudsmen to audit facilities. Pay rates have been increased and working conditions have reportedly been improved.
Oh yeah, the company also installed suicide nets at factory dormitories at its Shenzhen plant.
By Andrew Klips
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