Tian Yu’s little tree of fortune – a gift from friends in Shenzhen wishing her a speedy recovery after she leapt from the fourth floor of a Foxconn factory building three years ago – is withering.
Paralysed from the waist down and restricted to a wheelchair, the 20-year-old desperately tries to avoid looking back at a painful past that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
Early this month, The South China Morning Post visited Tian Yu, three years after her attempted suicide. She now lives with her mother and 15-year-old brother, who is a deaf-mute, in the village of Nantianzhuang, just over 80 kilometres from Xiangfan city in Hubei province, by the border with Henan.
In Nantianzhuang, blossoming canola flowers coat the fields where wheat is beginning to sprout. Tiny paths through the fields lead to her home where chickens roam freely and a chained-up dog rests in the yard outside her parent’s two-bedroom brick house.
Tian Yu wipes her face with a worn-out cloth just after waking up, and greets her visitors with a cheerful smile. She wears a pony tail and a pink-quilted coat with black pants. After wheeling herself to the yard, she tells her brother to make tea, using a sign language they have made up between them.
“I realise I can never be normal again. To see other healthy people out there and thinking: ‘That used to me,’ but now I’m living without the use of my left arm and legs makes me sad,” Tian said.
In March 2010, overwhelmed by what she described as the “helpless and gruelling” workplace in Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer to leading US, European and Japanese electronics firms, Tian jumped from her fourth-floor dormitory at the company’s giant Longhua plant in Shenzhen. At the age of 17, she was the youngest Foxconn worker to have attempted suicide and one of the first to survive her attempt.
The spate of Foxconn suicides have triggered a massive outpouring of shock and anger.
Foxconn, which makes iPads and iPhones for Apple and devices for Sony, Hewlett-Packard and others, faced a rash of worker suicides in 2010. Labour rights groups claimed the incidents stemmed from harsh working conditions at the Taiwanese-invested manufacturing giant, which employs more than a million workers on the mainland.
A research report, jointly produced by 20 universities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland in January 2011, described Foxconn’s plants as “labour camps” that severely violated mainland labour laws and abused workers physically and mentally. The research also found that at least 17 Foxconn workers – 13 of whom died – had attempted suicide since January 2010. Thirteen of them had died.
Commenting on the investigation, a Foxconn spokesman said in a written reply to the Post that the firm did not agree with the report’s characterisation of working conditions at its plants as inhumane.
“Investigations conducted by experts into the incidents in 2010 have determined that the causes of these incidents are very complex and there was no one cause for those tragedies,” the spokesman said in a written response. The spokesman also said Foxconn had installed a number of measures to ensure workers’ wellbeing, including counselling services, care centres and enhanced extracurricular activities.
The company paid for Tian’s initial treatment and gave her family 180,000 yuan (HK$224,000) in compensation – most of which went on her rehabilitation – but no longer provides her with any financial support.
Nine months after her ordeal, the Post tracked her down as she received rehabilitative treatment at Hongji Orthopaedic Hospital in Wuhan. She had suffered three compressed fractures of her spine and four hip fractures, meaning she could not feel anything below her navel.
“After leaving hospital, my mood hit rock bottom as I didn’t know how to face everyone,” she said earlier this month.
“I was very upset and could not find the words to describe how I felt. I was mostly bedridden and couldn’t even sit up in a wheelchair.”
It has taken her several years to move from being bedridden to becoming mobile in a wheelchair, but it will take a miracle to see her ever walk again.
“If there is a miracle, I will be able to stand up again. If not, I will be like this for the rest of my life,” Tian said.
“If I could stand up, like some of the very few lucky wheelchair-bound patients out there, then I might just be able to walk again in 10 years. But my doctors said it would take a miracle and would depend on me making it happen,” she said.
“But I am confident and hopeful that I can stand again and be independent. To me, the most important thing is to do things by myself and not have to rely on others.”
After leaving hospital, Tian Yu made use of handicraft books she received from volunteers in Shenzhen and began selling handmade slippers online to help her impoverished family.
The intricately embroidered slippers, which take dozens of stages to complete, are made mostly of braided cloth strips and come with a massaging sole. They are sold for 50 yuan per pair on Taobao, an online shopping site like eBay or Amazon. But she begrudges wearing the slippers herself. On a good day, Tian Yu says she can make four pairs, but hasn’t received a single order online for several months.
All went well at first, as she received attention from the local press and supporters, including academics, at universities.
“I was at my worst from May 2011 to last year, because sales had begun to drop. I was really hoping things would get better for a change, but I ended up developing a bedsore. I was sent back to the hospital and was bedridden for another two months,” Tian said.
“When I get really down, I think of the presents and comfort others have given me, or write down my feelings and tell myself in the mirror that tomorrow is going to be a better day,” she said.
Tian is thankful for the support and unconditional understanding she has received from her mother, who has never once blamed her for trying to end her life. Today, Tian is filled with guilt at having brought such torment to her already-impoverished household. She chokes back tears when talking about her hardworking father, Tian Jiandang, 43. He left home after the Lunar New Year holiday for a job as a tunnel worker in Shanxi x , after severe drought ruined their corn crop.
“My brother always hangs around, making sure I’m looked after every time I want to journey outside the house,” she said.
Tian Xiaolong is a cheerful boy and very proud of his sister, regardless of what she did.
Xiaolong holds up the baby tree of fortune to his sister. Looking sad, he mumbled and points to its dying leaves, as if to say he is sorry to see the tree, which was meant to bring good fortune, withering.
Tian’s 19-year-old sister, to whom she is very close, also left home last year to work in a Hangzhou x factory making audio equipment. In the remote village, there is nothing to do for a girl of her age, as most young people flock to the boom towns of Guangdong or the Yangtse River Delta to make a better living.
“My friends are basically all working outside, while some have become mothers already. Most of them are no longer in Nantianzhuang,” she said.
Despite being able to bear children, Tian Yu says she had no thoughts of getting married one day or figuring out how she is going to cope on her own after her parents pass away.
Reluctant to talk about her past, Tian only wants to look on the bright side, an attitude she says gives her the strength to carry on.
“We signed an agreement in 2010, basically making a clean break which means no matter what happens to me, I would not have anything to do with Foxconn. I haven’t worked there for a long time. I don’t want to talk about the past,” she said.
“No matter how difficult it is, don’t ever kid with your life because there is a heavy price to pay. [My suicide attempt] has been an extremely traumatic experience and a heavy burden on those around me,” she said.
“If you don’t like your job, you can always change to one at another factory.”.