* Authorities send 5,000 police to restore order
* Owner Foxconn blames personal dispute
* Some employees, online messages accuse factory guards
* Foxconn major supplier to Apple, other global electronics firms
By Maxim Duncan and Clare Jim
TAIYUAN, China/TAIPEI, Sept 24 (Reuters) - About 2,000 Chinese employees of an iPhone assembly company fought a pitched battle into the early hours of Monday, forcing the huge electronics plant where they work to be shut down.
Authorities in the northern city of Taiyuan sent 5,000 police to restore order after what the plant's Taiwanese owners Foxconn Technology Group said was a personal dispute in a dormitory that erupted into a mass brawl.
However, some employees and people posting messages online accused factory guards of provoking the trouble by beating up workers at the factory, which employs about 79,000 people and is owned by the world's largest contract maker of electronic goods.
"The plant is closed today for investigation," Foxconn spokesman Louis Woo told Reuters. It was not clear how long the plant would be shut while police and company officials investigate the violence, but an employee contacted by telephone said the closure could last two or three days.
Foxconn cited police as saying that 40 people were taken to hospital and a number were arrested, while the state-run Xinhua news agency reported three people were in serious condition.
The unrest is the latest in a string of incidents at plants run by Foxconn, the trading name of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co whose shares fell 1 percent on Monday in a broader market that rose 0.2 percent.
On Monday evening, paramilitary police with riot shields, helmets and batons guarded one entrance of the massive factory complex, while an announcement over loudspeakers said there had been a criminal incident the night before and urged people to respect the law.
The windows of at least three gates' guard posts had been smashed, piles of glass littering the ground around them, and the railings of some gates lie flat on the ground, having been bent over.
Foxconn, which assembles Apple's iPhones as well as making components for other global electronics firms, h as faced accusations of poor conditions and mistreatment of workers at its operations in China, where it employs about 1 million people.
The company says it has been spending heavily in recent months to improve working conditions and to raise wages.
Foxconn said in a statement the incident escalated from what it called a personal dispute between several employees at around 11 p.m. on Sunday in the privately-managed dormitory, and was brought under control by police at around 3 a.m.
"The cause of this dispute is under investigation by local authorities and we are working closely with them in this process, bu t it appears not to have been work-related," Foxconn said. Hon Hai said about 2,000 workers were involved.
Comments posted online, however, suggested security guards may have been to blame. In a posting on the Chinese Twitter-like microblog site Sina Weibo, user "Jo-Liang" said that four or five security guards beat a worker almost to death.
Another user, "Fan de Sa Hai", quoted a friend from Taiyuan as saying guards beat up two workers from Henan province and in response, other workers set bed quilts on fire and tossed them out of dormitory windows.
Xinhua quoted a senior official with the Taiyuan city government as saying investigators initially determined the fight broke out as workers from Shandong Province clashed with workers from Henan. The agency earlier quoted Taiyuan City's public security bureau as saying about 5,000 police had tackled the violence.
Calls to the Taiyuan police were not immediately answered, while an official at the plant declined to comment when reached by telephone.
" Clearly there is deep-seated frustration and anger among the employees and no outlet, apart from violence, for that frustration to be released," Geoff Crothall, communication director at China Labour Bulletin, a labour rights group in Hong Kong, said in a statement.
"There is no dialogue and no means of resolving disputes, no matter how minor. So it is not surprising when such disputes escalate into violence."
Foxconn does not confirm which of its plants supply Apple, but an employee told Reuters that the Taiyuan plant is among those that assemble and make parts for Apple's iPhone 5.
In June, about 100 workers went on a rampage at a Foxconn plant in Chengdu, in southwestern China.
CORRECTION: A previous headline incorrectly stated that the Foxconn factory produces iPhones; it produces some components of the phone.
Earlier on HuffPost:
On February 21, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/nightline-apple-supplier-foxconn_n_1293393.html?ref=technology" target="_hplink">ABC aired a "Nightline" segment featuring Bill Weir's visit to a Chinese Foxconn factory</a> responsible for making some of Apple's popular devices. During a tour of the factory, Weir says he "expected more robots" but in fact most of the gadgets at Foxconn are made the old-fashioned way: The high tech parts are put together by hand. For example, iPhones are assembled by hand in 141 steps. One iPad takes five days to assemble and passes through 325 sets of hands.
Two shifts of workers toiling in 12 hour shifts can make 300,000 iPad camera modules in one day, not to mention shape sleek iPads out of "raw hunk[s] of aluminum" at a rate of 10,000 per hour. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">Image via Nightline</a>
7 To A Room
Many workers live at the factory, where they pay $17.50 per month to live 7 to a room in Foxconn dormitories. <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/connieguglielmo/2012/02/22/nightline-goes-inside-apple-factories-in-china/" target="_hplink">The average starting salary is $285 per month,</a> and workers must pay for their food. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">Image via Nightline</a>
No Free Lunch
Workers get two hour-long meal breaks during each 12-hour shift. They eat together in a cafeteria where they pay $.70 a meal. This is about a quarter of their hourly wage. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">Image via Nightline</a>
Tim Cook Investigated Suicides
In 2010, after a spate of suicides at Foxconn's Shenzen plant, then COO Tim Cook flew to China to investigate the matter. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">According to Nightline,</a> Cook put together a team of psychiatric experts to examine the issue. It was at that team's suggestion that the infamous nets were installed between the buildings to prevent suicides. There have been 18 worker suicides at Foxconn since 2010. <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/15/us-china-apple-idUSTRE81E1FQ20120215" target="_hplink">According to Reuters' interview with Fair Labor Association president Auret van Heerden, the group's initial findings from its audit of Foxconn</a> suggested that the suicides could have been "a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps."
Weir said he was surprised to see how young the workers were. He said many were in their late teens and no one looked like they could be over 30. Many had left their hometowns, oftentimes in the countryside, in order to get jobs at Foxconn. Weir also toured Chengdu and spoke with the relatives of workers who had left for jobs at Foxconn. According to Cult of Mac, <a href="http://www.cultofmac.com/147878/foxconn-employees-say-underage-workers-were-hidden-before-fla-inspection/" target="_hplink">Foxconn may have hidden underage employees</a> when the Fair Labor Association conducted its inspections. While Apple allows for workers as young as sixteen to assemble their products, those eighteen and under are afforded "special protections," <a href="http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/12/02/22/factory_workers_claim_foxconn_hid_under_age_employees_before_fla_inspection.html" target="_hplink">according to Apple Insider.</a> These include not being allowed to perform some tasks and working shorter hours than older workers.
Foxconn Exec Wants To Pay More
When asked how Foxconn would react if Apple suggested doubling workers' pay, Foxconn executive Louis Woo told Weir that the company would welcome a raise for employees. "Why not?" Woo said. "That would be good for the employees and also definitely good for China and good for us."
Workers have to wear static-proof jackets and take "air showers" to make sure the work area remains dust-free. Even one spec of dust could prove ruinous to the iGadgets' delicate innards. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">Image via Nightline</a>
WATCH A CLIP FROM THE NIGHTLINE SEGMENT