China – Kathleen E. McLaughlin
Editor’s note: This story is part of our series Silicon Sweatshops, an ongoing GlobalPost investigation into the supply chains that make some of your favorite electronic gadgets. In this latest installment, GlobalPost examines the fallout after a factory that supplies Apple and Nokia used the toxic solvent n-hexane in violation of local codes and without proper safety equipment.
BEIJING, China — Just weeks after Apple finally acknowledged their plight, the young Chinese workers made ill in 2009 by toxic chemical exposure at a touch screen supplier factory in eastern China have begun running out of options.
Several workers at Wintek’s electronics component factory in Suzhou say they’ve experienced relapses of their symptoms in recent months, including new incidents of numb hands and feet, along with other continuing problems. In phone interviews on Friday, several said they have tried to return to the hospital for medical care, but doctors won’t treat them without assurance that their employer will pay the bills. Thus far, they said, the company hasn’t agreed.
Jia Jingchuan, a 27-year-old, is one of the 137 workers who fell ill at the Suzhou-based factory nearly two years ago after exposure to the chemical n-hexane, which the factory deployed on the line, without permission or protective gear, to produce touch screens for Apple products. Unlike most of the other sickened workers, Jia hasn’t left his job, staying on the factory line in the hope that his employer will pay for his recurring medical problems.
“Every day my hands and feet sweat a lot, even when it’s very cold,” Jia said, describing his physical state. “I still get headaches all the time and have no strength. When I walk I feel so exhausted.”
“At night, my legs cramp up so badly it wakes me up,” he added. “Last October, that only happened every two or three days, but now it’s every night and I hardly get any sleep.”
The new complaints contrast with what Apple said in its report on the matter: “Apple has verified that all affected workers have been treated successfully, and we continue to monitor their medical reports until full recuperation.”
The medical maladies of Jia and scores of others began when their employer, a factory owned by Taiwan’s Wintek, swapped basic rubbing alcohol with the more dangerous toxin n-hexane in the final cleaning process of touch screens to shave off a few seconds off production time. N-hexane is a known toxin and prolonged, high-level exposure can caused nerve damage and a long list of medical problems. The symptoms abate after the exposure is removed, but relapses can occur, according to medical documentation.
Dozens of workers were treated in Suzhou, some hospitalized for months after the initial exposure. But then many of the younger workers returned home to far-flung villages and families, leaving behind the chance of further compensation. Jia and Guo, older than most of their peers, stayed on. Now they’re feeling ill again can’t afford to pay for treatment.
Neither Apple nor Wintek could be reached for comment on the situation. Apple, under fire for a spate of suicides at another supplier factory elsewhere in China, was silent on the n-hexane cases last year when Global Post first reported on sick workers in Suzhou. Last month, in the company’s annual Supplier Responsibility Report, Apple acknowledged that workers had been made ill.
Guo Ruiqiang, 31, said he had tests and some outpatient treatment from the local hospital initially, but was refused further treatment on Thursday. Guo said his symptoms have come back and he’s desperate for some kind of medical care.
“The tips of three fingers on my left hand are numb, my wrist is in pain, while my knee and leg are sore and painful,” Guo said. “On the right side of my body, I’ve got similar symptoms, only a bit better than a few months ago.”
“When I walk I don’t have enough strength, it looks like I am dragging my feet,” said Guo. “It’s like I’m hobbled and my body can’t stay straight.”
Guo, Jia and other workers have written directly to Apple’s Steve Jobs asking for a public apology and assistance with their medical treatment. As yet, they’ve been met with silence.
The Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior has called on Wintek and Apple to step in and rectify the situation. The group said in a statement that Apple should ensure Wintek and its local subsidiary provide medical treatment for the workers it poisoned, and better salaries across the board, even if that means higher prices on Apple’s popular gadgets.
The group’s Debby Chan said SACOM’s investigation into factory conditions in Suzhou showed that while n-hexane has been taken from the equation, workers continue to be exposed to harmful chemicals on the job without proper protective gear. For the workers, paying medical expenses themselves simply isn’t possible. Jia said his 10 months in the hospital cost 250,000 yuan ($38,000). He earns $275 a month at the factory.
“My family can’t afford to pay for medical treatment and I don’t earn enough money. How much money does a family of farmers have?” he said. “It is not fair to make my family responsible for this; they are innocent.”