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Silicon Sweatshops: Another black eye for Apple supplier

Wintek admits 62 workers fall ill from chemical exposure.

BEIJING, China — A Taiwanese manufacturer that makes LCD screens and components for tech giants like Apple confirmed Thursday that more of its workers in China were sickened by chemical exposure than it previously reported.

Wintek’s Suzhou, China-based factory, which produces electronic components for some of the world’s most popular gadgets including products made by Apple and Nokia, confirmed reports in government-run media that 62 of its workers, 15 more than initially reported, had fallen ill after toxic chemical exposure at work last summer. Among the factory employees sickened by toxic chemical exposure several months ago, 41 are still hospitalized, said Huang Zhongjie, a spokesman for Wintek in Taiwan.

Huang said the newest poisoning cases emerged through Wintek’s ongoing employee health testing, since the toxic exposure seems to have a latency period before symptoms appear in some people. More cases may come to light through continued regular health screens the company has undertaken at the Suzhou site, Huang said. Huang's comments came after a raft of Chinese media coverage on the factory, including a report from a business newspaper charging that at least 100 factory workers remain hospitalized from toxic exposure.

Workers at the factory suffered nerve and muscle damage after working with the toxic chemical hexane to clean component touch screens for electronic products. The company and local government both say Wintek’s factory has since stopped using the chemical in its manufacturing process. Several media outlets, including the official China Daily newspaper in Beijing, have reported the factory makes screens for Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, but a factory manager said Thursday he could not confirm that. Workers were uncertain about the ultimate destination of the LCD screens they made.

Apple maintains a strict air of secrecy about its suppliers. The company did not reply to GlobalPost’s requests for comment this week about the Suzhou factory and toxic exposure problems. In its latest corporate audit of supplier compliance, Apple found that three-quarters of the more than 100 suppliers it audited were in compliance with the company’s codes on health and safety. The audit does not name any specific companies that failed to meet standards.

Wintek’s problems in Suzhou came to a head in early January, when workers staged a violent strike after rumors spread that their annual bonuses had been cancelled. Amid the strike, they also spoke out over the poisoning cases and alleged that at least one worker had died, although the company maintained that the employee died of a heart attack.

The local government has backed up Wintek on that point, saying it has found no evidence that anyone died from hexane exposure in the factory.

The company later released a statement saying the bonus issue was a misunderstanding and workers would receive a bonus payment before the Lunar New Year holiday. At that time, it didn’t address the poisoning cases, which workers said were at the real heart of the strike. Two Suzhou workers told GlobalPost that factory employees were concerned about a lack of information about the hexane poisonings and many suspected a cover-up. In online postings, workers complained about a lack of safety equipment and training when working with the chemical.

Wintek is no stranger to controversy, and labor-rights groups have targeted it as a problematic employer with repeated violations of labor codes. In a five-part series, GlobalPost last year investigated and exposed widespread labor abuses within the Taiwan-based Wintek, chronicling the company’s long history with questionable labor practices in China and elsewhere.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china-and-its-neighbors/100225/silicon-sweatshops-apple