Poison Apple: iPhone Production Line Tied to Toxics in China

Michelle Chen

Before you tap out another text from your iPhone, take a moment to think about all the technological power you hold in that slick, palm-sized gadget. Savor your spot at the vanguard of the digital revolution. Because far down at the bottom of the production chain, life isn’t so breezy. And for some workers who churn out Apple’s hottest products, it smells a little funny.

Anti-sweatshop activists have blasted Apple for ignoring exploitative, perhaps severely poisonous, working conditions at United Win Technology, a facility in Jiangsu Province apparently connected to Apple Computers. Media reports have been circulating since 2009 about exposure of workers to n-hexane, a substance workers say they’ve used to make those glittering Apple touch screens.

Public scrutiny intensified following a major strike over pay cuts in January. Around the same time, occupational safety authorities announced that dozens of employees had shown symptoms of n-hexane poisoning and been hospitalized.

Hong-Kong based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) launched a campaign to call out the digital mogul for its silence on these workplace hazards:

The Apple Supplier Code of Conduct specifies that suppliers must identify, evaluate, and control worker exposure to hazardous chemical, biological, and physical agents.’ Apparently, Apple has responsibility for the poisoning case as it failed to implement its code of conduct. It is disappointing that Apple has given no response to the public on this issue.

SACOM recently published its independent research on working conditions behind Apple’s product line. While not a formal health study, the investigation reveals a workplace environment rife with potential hazards for which no one seems to take responsibility:

Deception: Workers [say] Wintek opened the emergency doors in departments to dilute the density of chemicals before inspection by local authorities took place.

Working hours: Workers are denied right to rest. The normal working hours in the factory is up to 70 hours per week. There is no holiday during the week. This is in violation of local laws and the codes of conduct of Apple and the Electronic Industrial Citizenship Coalition. Moreover, overtime is mandatory….

Code of conduct: None of the interviewee[s] has heard about code of conduct of any brands, including Apple and Nokia.

Communication channel: Workers express that they will be scolded if they lodge a complaint. They do not found there is effective channel to bring about their grievances.

Young workers whom SACOM recently interviewed at Yun Heng, another Chinese facility tied to Apple, told investigators that workers used n-hexane to clean the Apple logos.” They reportedly had no protective gear despite strong and irritating” chemical odors (not to mention a legal requirement for protective equipment). Observers documented an absence of ventilation facilities on the closed shop floor.”

Wintek has provided some compensation to injured workers, but for the most part, the right to know” doesn’t exist in Southern China. For the factory workers piecing together metal bits at a frenzied pace all day long, any fatal thoughts that cross their numbed minds are likely to be about the production quota, not the noxious vapours they’re breathing. SACOM quoted one worker’s confusion:

If I knew the chemical is poisonous, I would never have worked in this factory!” Huang Juan exclaimed.

Workers do not know the composition of the solvent that they are using. The usage of n-hexane was requested by SurTec because the chemical is more effective, according to workers.

Occupational safety can’t be separated from overall labor conditions. Yun Heng workers said they were given no official documentation of their pay, left in the dark about whether they’re being accurately compensated. The only physical record of their toil is left on their bodies:

It is so hard for me to walk from my bed to the toilet,” Xiao Ling said. Her legs are crooked and cannot walk probably. Although it is only a 10-step distance, Xiao Ling had to grab something to support herself while walking. I don’t know about my future, now I cannot take care of small personal tasks like washing clothes. I am not sure can I find another job after I am discharged from hospital,” Wang Yufan [said]. The symptoms of the Yun Heng workers are very similar to those victims of United Win. They suffer from numbness and tingling in their fingers and feet. The four workers showed researchers their forearms, which are full of marks, bruises and small holes due to blood tests and injections.

Though sometimes portrayed as cleaner and greener than older industries, the electronics sector is rife with corporate-responsibility controversies – not just toxic hazards but also the disposal of harmful e-waste, and human rights violations in the sourcing of hardware minerals.

Apple’s sketchy supply chain is coming back to bite its public image. This year, the company slipped from fifth place to ninth in the latest greener-electronics ranking by Greenpeace. The company’s track record is tarnished, according to Greenpeace, by a lack of information about its management of chemicals and its supply chain communications” as well as its unclear commitment to implementing future toxic chemical phase-out plans.”

Somewhere between the blank spots in Apple’s public relations and the enfeebled bodies on Chinese factory floors, managers must be held to account for potential risks embedded in their profit margins. No one knows if the reported chemical contamination stems directly from Apple’s corporate practices.

But the factory workers’ ordeal reveals the degree of suffering that the Chinese labor force has internalized as the cost of doing global business. That toxic status quo will only start to dissolve if someone — whether a grassroots consumer movement or a top-down mandate from a responsible corporate board — tells China’s young workers they shouldn’t have to put up with it.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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