SHENZHEN, China — Apple manufacturer Foxconn Wednesday urged workers to sign contracts promising not to kill themselves to stem a spate of suicides -- hours before the 11th worker this year fell to his death.
The apparent suicides have raised questions about the conditions for millions of factory workers in China, especially at Foxconn's southern Chinese plant, where activists say long hours, low pay and high pressure are the norm.
The official Xinhua news agency, quoting a witness, said the latest victim at the firm's giant Shenzhen plant fell to his death around 11:20 pm (1520 GMT), adding that Foxconn had confirmed the death.
Hours earlier Foxconn's Taiwanese parent company had apologised publicly for the suicides.
"I give my apologies for the impact this has had on society," said Terry Gou, chairman of Foxconn's Taiwanese parent company Hon Hai Precision, after flying into Shenzhen aboard his private jet for a hastily arranged media tour. "I will do all I can to save lives."
But he defended the company's labour practices and speculated that some of the suicides may have been linked to personal or relationship problems.
Foxconn employees must now agree to go to psychiatric institutions for their own protection if their mental health turns "abnormal", according to reports.
And the company was said to be hanging safety nets around buildings at its vast factory in Shenzhen after a 19-year-old worker fell to his death on Tuesday.
Wednesday's death brings the toll of apparent suicides at the huge Shenzhen site this year to ten, with another death reported at a plant in northern China..
Apple, which is preparing to launch its iPad computer tablet in countries outside the United States on Friday, said it was evaluating Foxconn's efforts to prevent further deaths.
"Apple is deeply committed to ensuring that conditions throughout our supply chain are safe and workers are treated with respect and dignity," a spokeswoman told AFP.
Ahead of the stage-managed media tour of the Shenzhen site, the parents and sister of Mai Xiang Quian, who committed suicide in January, wept and knelt on the ground at the gates, the father's tears dripping on a picture of his son.
Behind them were signs displaying the fruits of the workers' labour -- Hewlett-Packard computer screens, Sony televisions and Nokia handsets.
Inside, journalists were herded around a huge city-within-a-city which employs a staggering 300,000 people.
Officials said workers were treated well with only between four and eight people sharing plush dorm rooms. The tree-lined site boasts banks, bakeries, a 24-hour market, gurgling fountains and even an acupuncturist.
Foxconn official Louis Woo, one of the tour leaders, said the company was starting a 24-hour helpline and planned to divide workers into groups of under 50, to counter isolation.
"The number one priority has to be to try to stop this spate of suicides," Woo told AFP.
Part of the problem, he said, is that a "pretty high number" of employees are aged 18 to 24 -- the prime age for suicides. And many are far away from their homes in remote parts of China for the first time.
The government of Shenzhen said in a press briefing that more than 30 psychologists had been dispatched to the firm as well as 260 special security officers, the Southern Daily newspaper reported.
But beyond the factory gates, workers told of long hours, harsh supervisors and low pay. A 22-year-old female employee told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post: "I feel like I have an empty life and work like a machine."
Taiwan's CTI cable TV channel said Foxconn was demanding that staff sign a letter promising not to take their own lives.
Roof patrols are also being arranged and nets installed around buildings to deter suicidal workers, the channel said.
China's Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper published a photograph of a memo with a Foxconn letterhead that it said all employees were being asked to sign.
"I promise never to hurt myself or others in an extreme manner," said a section of the memo.
It also asked employees to allow the company to send them to a medical institution if they appeared to be in an "abnormal mental or physical state for the protection of myself and others".
One Foxconn worker told the newspaper he had refused to sign because the company was seeking the right to institutionalise employees. "If I bicker with my supervisor, will I be sent to a mental hospital?"
But there is no shortage of people trying to get through the Shenzhen gates. The company says around 8,000 people apply to work at the factory every day.
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