Friday, May 28, 2010

Suicide by Statistics

The media have made much in recent weeks of the apparent spate of suicides at the Shenzhen factory owned by Foxconn, the world's largest maker of computer parts for such leading brands as Apple and Dell. 13 of its employees have attempted suicide this year, 10 of them successfully.

Now if Foxconn were a typical Pearl River Delta factory with a few thousand workers, this would indeed be an alarming figure. But it is in fact a massive enterprise, with the Shenzhen plant employing 300,000 people according to Wikipedia. Today's South China Morning Post puts the figure even higher at 420,000. Either way, this makes it the size of a small city - larger than Taipo, for example.

Now let's look at the figures again. According to World Health Organisation statistics, China's suicide rate in 1999 [the last year listed) was 13.9 per 100,000 per year. Now extrapolate the 10 successful suicides at Foxconn this year (2 per month) to an annual figure of 24. Taking 300,000 as the number of employees, Foxconn's rate is therefore 8 per 1000,000 per annum. Far from being unusually high, this is little more than half the national average.

A more detailed statistical analysis would look at these figures in greater depth to compare them by age group - most Foxconn employees are in their twenties or thirties - and gender - China is unique in being the only country where more women than men kill themselves. And I do not intend to suggest that the 10 suicides are not tragic for those involved. But just the basic analysis I have given here suggests that, not unusually, the statistically illiterate media have blown up a problem out of all proportion.

An honourable exzception here is The Times. After I worked this out, I found their article drawing the same conclusion.

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