Xbox workers threaten suicide in China labor tiff

Jan 12, 2012

(AP) -- Dozens of workers assembling Xbox video game consoles climbed to a factory dormitory roof, and some threatened to jump to their deaths, in a dispute over job transfers that was defused but highlights growing labor unrest as China's economy slows.

The dispute was set off after contract manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group announced it would close the for .'s models at its plant in the central city of Wuhan and transfer the workers to other jobs, workers and Foxconn said Thursday.

Workers reached by telephone said Foxconn initially offered severance pay for those who wanted to leave rather than be transferred, but then reneged, angering the workers; Foxconn, in a statement, disputed that account, saying only transfers were offered, not severance.

The workers climbed to the top of the six-story dormitory on Jan. 3 and threatened to jump before Wuhan city officials persuaded them to desist and return to work, according to the workers and accounts online. The workers gave varying estimates of the numbers involved in the strike, from 80 to 200, and photos posted online showed dozens of people crowding the roof of the boxy concrete building.

"Actually none of them were going to jump. They were there for the compensation. But the government and the company officials were just as afraid, because if even one of them jumped, the consequences would be hard to imagine," said Wang Jungang, an equipment engineer in the Xbox production line, who left the plant earlier this month.

The fracas is the latest labor trouble to hit Foxconn, a unit of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. that makes iPads and iPhones for Apple Inc. as well as Xboxes and other gadgets, helping consumer electronics brands hold down costs. Its massive China plants are run with military-like discipline, which labor rights activists say contributed to spate of suicides in 2010.

Foxconn said that all workers on the Xbox line were offered transfers at their current pay but that 150 demanded severance and not all of them participated in the rooftop protest. "It is our understanding that certain individuals threatened to jump from the building if their demands were not met," the statement said.

Strikes and other job actions have risen in recent months across China as factories cope with rising costs, scarce credit and declining orders from Europe, the United States and domestic companies. Complicating matters is the approaching Lunar New Year, a time when many of the migrant workers who man factories quit jobs to return home temporarily before looking for better paying employment.

Foxconn's Wuhan plant employs 32,000 people. The site previously had a couple of suicides or attempted ones a couple years back, prompting the government to take over the operations of the dormitories, said Wang, the equipment engineer.

After the rooftop protest, Microsoft said in a statement that it investigated, finding that the dispute centered on Foxconn's staffing and transfer policies, not working conditions. "After the protest, the majority of workers chose to return to work. A smaller portion of those employees elected to resign, the statement said.

Ultimately, Foxconn said, 45 of the employees resigned from the company while the rest chose to stay. It did not say whether the resigning were given compensation. Wang, the engineer, said he received $4,700 (30,000 yuan) in compensation but that was because he planned his departure early, telling his supervisor six months ago he would leave.

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