Crunching the suicide statistics at Foxconn

Are the suicides at Foxconn being exaggerated by the media?

Crunching the suicide statistics at Foxconn

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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.

According to the World Health Organization, the rate of suicide in China is 13 men and 14.8 females per 100,000 people per year.

So far, at Foxconn, there have 10 deaths in the first five months among 300,000 workers. Doing the sums, that means the annual rate of suicide in the Foxconn factory is 8 per 100,000 people, well underneath the 13.9 per 100,000 national average rate. (see correction below)

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.

Another possible useful statistic is that, according to China Labor Watch, the New York-based NGO, the number of suicides in the Pearl River Delta manufacturing zone has more than doubled in the last year, and that is not including the spate at Foxconn.

Correction: An earlier version of this post gave the national average suicide rate as 27.8 per 100,000 – the sum, rather than the average, of men's and women's suicide rates.