SHANGHAI - Protesters have made a traditional Chinese funeral offering to the dead at the headquarters of Foxconn, the makers of Apple's iPad, after the 11th suicide attempt - nine of them successful - at the company's factories so far this year.
Li Hai, a 19-year-old man from Hunan province, fell to his death from the roof of a dormitory building at Foxconn's Longhua factory on Tuesday, leaving the world's largest electronics manufacturer in crisis.
The spate of suicides at Foxconn has highlighted concerns over working conditions inside the giant Longhua factory, where 300,000 workers assemble goods for clients including Apple, Sony, Nintendo, Dell and Nokia. The death comes as Apple, which has not commented, prepares to launch the iPad in Australia.
The Longhua factory is the biggest in the world and is responsible for 20 per cent of exports emerging from Shenzhen, the one-time fishing village now one of the capitals of the world's manufacturing industry.
In the lobby of Foxconn's headquarters in Hong Kong, two dozen activists laid mannequins to rest and conducted funeral rites. ''We are staging the protest because of the high death rate [at Foxconn], with an abnormal number of workers committing suicide in the past five months,'' said Debby Chan, a spokesman for Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour.
The latest death came a day after Foxconn admitted it had paid ''insufficient attention'' to the wellbeing of workers and promised to hire 2000 therapists.
''We are not a sweatshop,'' said Foxconn's founder, Terry Gou, who rushed to the factory to manage the crisis. The 59-year-old, who founded Foxconn in 1974, added: ''We are doing a lot every day and we are confident the situation will soon stabilise. A manufacturing team of 800,000 people is very difficult to manage.''
In response to the bad publicity, workers have been told to sign letters promising not to kill themselves and even agreeing to be sent to psychiatric institutions if they appear to be in an ''abnormal mental or physical state for the protection of myself and others'', according to Taiwan's CTI cable TV channel.
Nets were also reportedly being hung around buildings to deter suicidal employees.
Although the number of suicides is statistically in line with the Chinese average for young people, the rate of cases appears to be gathering speed. China has been transfixed by the problems at one of its prize companies, and security camera footage of one suicide victim, a 24-year-old woman named Zu Chengmin, walking unsteadily out on to the roof of a Foxconn building on her way to her death was aired on the main news bulletins.
''You cannot compare the situation with the national average suicide rate,'' said Jin Shenghua, a professor of psychology at Beijing Normal University, who is now advising the company. ''When the rate of suicide jumps rapidly it is alarming. You can only compare this with the situation in other similar factories.''
Nine Chinese social sciences professors said in an open letter to Foxconn: ''[The deaths] force us to question the future of the 'factory of the world' and the new generation of migrant workers.
''This new generation of workers is better-educated, has higher dreams, more thoughts and can feel greater suffering.''
Telegraph, London; Agence France-Presse