Staff suffer health decline after supplier's use of toxic
chemical to clean western gadgets.
Next month, amid the usual hoopla, Apple is expected
to officially unveil its latest gadget:
the much-awaited iPhone 4G. But halfway round the globe from
the company's California headquarters, a young worker who has spent
months in an eastern
Chinese hospital wants consumers to look beyond the shiny
exterior of such gadgets.
"People should know what we do to create
these products and what cost we pay," said Bai Bing as she perched
on a bed in her ward.
She is one of scores of young workers in the city of Suzhou who
were poisoned by the chemical n-hexane, which they say was used to
clean Apple components including iPhone touch
Wu Mei – who, like the others, asked the Guardian to use her
nickname – recalled her fear as her health suddenly deteriorated
At first, she thought she was simply tired from the long working
hours at Wintek, a Taiwan-owned electronics giant supplying several
well-known brands. She was weaker than before and noticed she could
not walk so fast.
"Then it became more and more serious. I
found it very hard to go upstairs and if I squatted down I didn't
have the strength to get up. Later my hands became numb and I lost
my balance – I would fall over if someone touched me," she
By summer, she was admitted to hospital, where doctors struggled to
diagnose the cause. "I was terrified. I feared I might be paralysed
and spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair," she
Because she was using n-hexane directly, she was one of the
first and worst affected.
But more and more workers from the same room were suffering
headaches, dizziness and weakness, and pains in their limbs.
An occupational diseases hospital which saw several victims
diagnosed the problem in August and Wintek stopped using the
chemical. But thanks to the previous months of exposure, at least
62 workers would require medical care. Many spent months in
Some believe more employees left Wintek after being taken ill,
before they realised what was wrong.
Prolonged over-exposure to n-hexane can cause extensive damage to
the peripheral nervous system and ultimately the spinal cord,
leading to muscular weakness and atrophy and even paralysis, said
Paul Whitehead, a toxicology consultant and member of the UK's
Royal Society of Chemistry. It can also affect male fertility.
Recovery can take a year or more.
The chemical's potential risks are well-known in industry, as are
safe exposure limits. But the Wintek manager who decided to switch
from alcohol to n-hexane for cleaning – apparently because it dried
more quickly – did not assess the dangers. It was used without
The change was obvious; workers disliked the pungent smell of
n-hexane. But they had no idea it might affect their health.
"We hadn't even heard of occupational
illnesses before," said Wintek worker Xiao Ling.
"I'm very, very angry," added Wu. "I thought they behaved too
Asked if they knew what products they were working on, three of
the affected Wintek employees said team leaders told them they were
working for Apple. They instantly recognised pictures of an iPhone
and said they were cleaning touch screens, adding that items for
other brands were not affected because Apple had isolated its
production line. A lawyer acting for 44 of the poisoning victims
also said several had named Apple.
Wintek, which does not discuss its clients, said it had replaced
the factory's general manager.
It now notifies workers whose jobs may involve risk in advance, has
tightened procedures for the introduction of new chemicals, and
carries out medical checks. It has paid medical fees for those
affected and says it will pay compensation according to the
Given that the assessment and appeals process for compensation can
take as long as a decade, lawyers hope the firm will pay quickly as
well as fairly.
Other patients at the hospital say they too became sick while using
n-hexane on Apple products.
Bai Bing said she and her colleagues were cleaning components
including Apple logos – the kind that appear at the bottom of
desktop screens – when she fell ill.
Her employer, Yunheng, could not be reached, but work safety
officials in Suzhou have said eight employees were poisoned there
as they carried out work sub-contracted by another firm,
A Surtec employee confirmed that it made Apple logos, but a
spokesman said it knew nothing about Yunheng or the
Wintek has previously faced questions about its treatment of
workers, with disputes in Taiwan and at another plant on the
mainland. The Suzhou case only grabbed public attention when
lingering concern over the poisoning and anger over unpaid bonuses
sparked a mass protest.
Wintek blamed a misunderstanding and said bonuses had been paid and
the dispute – like the other conflicts – resolved. It added that it
had worked to improve communications with workers.
There is no suggestion that Apple was responsible for the use of
Apple declined to answer questions about the poisonings or about
the firms involved, saying it does not reveal who it works with,
although its spokeswoman added that Wintek had been "quite
proactive" in discussing the issue. Instead it pointed to its code
of conduct, which sets strict requirements for working and
environmental practices, adding that many suppliers say they are
the only customer carrying out such checks.
But the 2010 audit shows that manufacturers are routinely breaching
the code. The majority – 54% – broke the 60-hour weekly work limit
more than half the time. Another 39% failed to meet occupational
injury prevention requirements; 17% failed on chemical exposure
standards; and 35% did not meet wage and benefits requirements,
with 24 of the 102 factories audited paying less than minimum wage
for regular hours.
Three facilities used underage workers and three had falsified
records. Apple said it terminated the contract in one of the latter
cases, and required suppliers to make improvements and submit to
reviews following other breaches.
It has also trained more workers about their rights. The firm
argues that publishing the audits provides a level of
But until it identifies its manufacturers, outsiders have no way of
assessing how well its policies are working and what action it is
taking to deal with problems such as the n-hexane poisoning.
"Apple is the most paranoid about
commercial and product secrecy. That's getting in the way of
ensuring workers' rights are protected," says Geoff Crothall of
Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based organisation campaigning for workers'
The US giant – which last month reported quarterly profits of more
than $3bn – could afford to monitor factories with serious issues
"day in, day out" if it wished, he added.
"Apple products are not cheap and most Apple customers are willing
to pay a premium – so why not add a tiny little bit extra to ensure
working and environmental standards are met, as well as product
quality?" he asked.
In the meantime, while Wintek says most of the poisoned employees
have returned to work, at least some are opting to protect
themselves by leaving factory life.
"I want to be as far as possible away from
chemicals and the electronics plants," said Bai Bing. "I want some