SUZHOU, China — The mysterious illness began with an odd tingling of the fingers one week, a creeping numbness in the feet the next.
Sometimes, deep and painful muscle cramps would wake the factory workers from their dorm beds. Weeks later, many of the workers simply couldn’t walk right, staggering across the factory grounds, and struggling with once-nimble fingers to clean the delicate touch screens used in trendy gadgets. They had no idea that as they worked, the solvent they used to clean the screens was attacking their peripheral nerves. Unseen damage left them weak, shaky and often in pain. Sometimes their vision would blur. Headaches were common.
GlobalPost recently visited a hospital ward where more than two dozen sick workers remain under care for nerve damage sustained last summer at Wintek’s factory in Suzhou. After interviewing seven former and current workers, as well as families, friends and labor activists, plus reviewing medical records and corporate documents, we’ve learned the health damage done to workers is more severe than portrayed in previous accounts.
All the workers interviewed said n-hexane — the chemical that made people sick — was used in making touch screens for Apple, particularly the iPhone and iTouch. Apple rejected repeated interview requests, refused to confirm whether its products were involved and directed questions to its 2010 Supplier Responsibility audit, which does not address chemical poisoning.
In a highly competitive industry where consumer demand drives companies to squeeze costs out of complex supply chains, the Suzhou case raises broad questions in China about labor rights, worker safety and the thorny issue of compensation.
In a quiet wing of the Suzhou No. 5 Hospital, the rooms have taken on the look of a cheerful factory dorm. Dozens of young workers from around China have taken over the floor, and tried to make it homier with simple decorations, their laundry hanging from the balconies and crafting projects splayed across the beds. The wing is cheerful, the air of fear and uncertainty having lifted somewhat since the workers arrived last summer. Their health has improved, but they won’t be leaving for a while.
“At first I thought I was getting tired and weak because I was working so much,” recalled one 24-year-old woman, describing how she worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week before she got sick. “After some weeks, I knew I needed to see a doctor.”
Last summer, workers began fainting on the job and dozens made their way to the hospital. The company started testing workers and found mass exposure: Wintek says 62 employees had confirmed nerve damage from inhalation exposure to n-hexane, which the company admits it used illegally for nearly a year in the production process. The illness, a form of peripheral neuropathy, came on so slowly that most didn’t know they were ill until it was serious. Workers say others were sickened, but left the factory without treatment.
Their troubles began in October 2008, when Wintek’s Suzhou factory introduced n-hexane to clean touch screens in the final stages of production. According to the local government, the company lacked necessary permits to handle the toxin, which dries more quickly than alcohol, shaving seconds from production time and speeding up the line.
Wintek has fired the factory chief, according to company spokesman Huang Zhongjie in Taipei. Huang also said the factory stopped using n-hexane in August and has engaged in outreach and education for both sick workers and current employees.
Worker unrest over the poisonings reached a boiling point in January, with a violent strike at the plant and calls for answers. Many demanded to know whether factory engineer Li Liang died from chemical inhalation.
Huang says Wintek has raised salaries at the plant, and a current factory worker confirmed the wages have gone up. “We have put more attention to employees’ safety and health and have assigned a higher level authority to govern and enhance the relevant management and audit system,” said Wintek spokesman James Chen. “Also, we will enhance the communication with our employees for a better understanding for both management and employees.”
But that hasn’t quelled ongoing concerns from factory workers over their safety. The effects on human bodies are well-documented, but workers’ health was a secondary concern when n-hexane entered the Suzhou factory.
Each worker was required to clean 1,000 screens per day, dipping cotton cloths into a tray of hexane, swabbing the glass screens carefully and moving on, according to workers interviewed by GlobalPost. Over the course of a 12-hour shift, workers said one person would go through six trays of n-hexane, protected only by latex gloves and simple cotton masks — nothing close to the equipment that Chinese safety standards require for handling the chemical.
The case highlights problems with the widespread practice of technology giants’ outsourcing and fragmented supply chains. There is no single iPhone or iTouch factory, for example. Instead, outside companies are hired to make components and assemble the phones or other products. Taiwan-based Wintek is one of the biggest such companies, and it also makes components for tech giant Nokia.
Nokia says it confirmed n-hexane was not used on its components in the Suzhou factory — an assertion that the workers back up. The substance was used in the cleaning room on the second floor, the floor designated for Apple products, six former and current employees said.
Because Apple will not agree to be interviewed, it is impossible to verify exactly what the workers made. But a current factory employee on the second floor snapped a photo for GlobalPost of what appears to be a nearly finished iPhone in production. Six other current and former factory employees said they handled iPhone and iTouch screens and saw screens for the iPad tablet computer in the factory. The four hospitalized workers interviewed by GlobalPost instantly recognized an iTouch when shown the gadget, and handled it with familiarity.
There are tangible steps companies like Apple can take to protect workers, labor-rights groups say. Employees should be allowed to organize unions, said Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. Also, nothing beats on-the-ground inspections from the companies that produce the final products.
“What they have to do is take a more hands-on approach,” said Crothall, noting Apple’s recently released supplier compliance report, which found multiple problems but did not name the offending factories. “There’s nothing in that Apple report that focuses on this particular factory,” said Crothall. “Apple should be commended on taking some measures, but it just needs to go further.”
More than a year after they were first exposed to n-hexane and eight months after most entered the hospital, 41 workers await medical clearance to resume their lives. They have mostly recovered, with some lingering tremors and pains, but little knowledge of potential long-term consequences. The four who shared their stories said though they feel physically better, they’re shaken.
“I won’t work in another factory again,” says one woman, a 21-year-old from Anhui province. “My health is more important than any job.”
She is dressed in pink pajamas under a puffy black vest. She and the others sit atop their hospital beds in a room that over these eight months has become their home. They are anxious to leave it. The women are young, ranging in age from 20 to 24, and three of the four were away from home for the first time when they got sick. They said some workers who fell ill left immediately and went home, probably going uncounted in Wintek’s tally. Those who stayed got their health care paid for and a chance at some disability compensation.
So what do these workers, who earned about $220 a month and lost nearly a year of their lives to illness, think of customers who buy the products that made them sick?
“I haven’t really thought about it before,” says the woman in the pink pajamas, pausing to consider.
Then, she decides, and says in a steady voice: “It would be good for the people who use those phones so happily to consider the sacrifice we made.”