News that Shenzhen officials have told Foxconn workers to value their lives, and stop the rash of suicides that is jeopardizing bonuses, promotions and Steve Jobs' reputation, prompts the question just what value workers should place on their lives.
Since reform and opening up, hasn't money been the measure of all things in China? And hasn't the Shenzhen government put a precise value on the lives of workers by setting the minimum wage at 1000 yuan a month? (A complex mathematical formula yields a figure high enough to prevent mass disorder but low enough to stop multinationals decamping to Vietnam.)
Now we clearly can't pay workers as much as senior officials, who have a responsibility to keep friends, colleagues, and investors entertained in a punishing round of restaurants, karaoke bars and massage parlors. But we need a figure that will act as a disincentive to self-termination. A government inquiry is clearly called for, and should include a study trip to other emerging economies such as South Africa (in time for the World Cup) and Brazil...
One common theme in much of the reaction to the spate of suicides at Foxconn's Longhua plant is that the rate of suicide is lower than the national average rate for China...
...But it seems to me that comparing a narrow demographic (factory workers aged 18-25) with the overall Chinese population is misleading.
The Chinese suicide rate is dramatically swelled, for example, by deaths among women in the countryside, who represent half of all cases each year. Their suffering does not seem to have much in common with the plight of an urban youth.
Unhelpfully, there do not appear to be any statistics for suicide rates among young people. The closest analogue we could find was a statement by Liu Huashan, a well-respected professor of psychology at China Central Normal university, that the rate of suicide among university students is between 2-4 per 100,000 per year.
Again, however, it is problematic to compare unhappy migrant workers with university students, even if they are roughly the same age, since their relative aspirations and opportunities in life are radically different.
One reasonable statistic to look at is how quickly the suicides have spiked at Foxconn. If you choose to look at the statistics another way, six people have killed themselves in May at Longhua. Extrapolate that rate of suicide and you get 24 suicides per 100,000 per year...
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