Friday, May 7, 2010

The Cost Of Cool Toys

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 screens.
Wu Mei – who, like the others, asked the Guardian to use her nickname – recalled her fear as her health suddenly deteriorated last spring.

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 said.

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 said.
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 hospital.

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 proper ventilation.
There is no suggestion that Apple was responsible for the use of n-hexane.

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 transparency.

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 China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based organisation campaigning for workers' rights.