Apple Investigated Foxconn Complaints Before iPhone Suicide Case

Apple is wrestling with a public-relations crisis caused by the loss of a next-generation iPhone prototype and the death of a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, Chinese manufacturer of Apple iPhones and iPods. In 2006, Apple audited Foxconn's working conditions after a British newspaper suggested that the factory violated labor practices, and found that the manufacturer asked excessive hours of its workers.

Apple previously investigated Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer of its iPhones and iPods, three years before the July 16 death of a 25-year-old Foxconn employee raised questions about Foxconn management.

Sun Danyong, an engineer with Foxconn, had been put in charge of shipping 16 prototypes of the fourth-generation iPhone to Apple in the United States. However, one of the phones went missing, leading Foxconn's security personnel to search Sun's apartment.

According to the Chinese newspaper Nanfang Daily, Sun sent a text message to a friend's phone claiming he had been interrogated and beaten by Foxconn security. At some point after sending that text, Sun fell to his death from the 12th floor of his apartment building in Shenzhen. Local authorities initially reported it a suicide.

A reporter with Nanfang Daily supposedly viewed surveillance footage of Sun's interrogation and saw no physical abuse. The newspaper also quoted the interrogator, security manager Gu Qinming, as saying he never physically harmed Sun.

However, a report by Bloomberg said Hon Hai Group, Foxconn's parent company, had suspended a security official by the name of Gu, and alerted Chinese authorities to the matter. There has been no comment on whether the lost iPhone prototype was recovered.

The death prompted a great deal of international media attention, leading Foxconn to issue a statement that read, in part, "The company has noticed there has been much detailed discussion on the Internet and welcomes public discussion on how to help Foxconn's management where it is lacking."

The statement added, "We will scrutinize those places, and strengthen our assistance to young employees."

"We are saddened by the tragic loss of this employee," Apple said in a statement. "We require that our suppliers treat all workers with dignity and respect."

This is not the first time that Foxconn, which employs over 270,000 workers, has caused Apple a public-relations crisis.

In 2006, a report in a British newspaper about poor working conditions at Foxconn led Apple to dispatch an audit team to China, composed of personnel from its Human Resources, Legal and Operations divisions. The team interviewed 100 "randomly selected employees" at the factory in addition to inspecting the facilities and documents, including personnel files and payroll data.

The factory passed inspection in many respects, according to the report issued by Apple's audit team. However, the team also found that "employees worked longer hours than permitted by our Code of Conduct, which limits normal workweeks to 60 hours and requires at least one day off each week."

"Although our Code of Conduct allows overtime limit exceptions in unusual circumstances," the report added, "we believe in the importance of a healthy work-life balance and found these percentages to be excessive."

But Janek Kuczkiewicz, director of human and trade union rights at the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) was "not impressed either by the report or by the findings of Apple," he told the BBC at the time.

"Apple interviewed just 100 people out of the estimated 30,000 iPod workers," Kuczkiewicz said. "We do not know the conditions in which the interviews were held. We have serious reservations about the report."