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Silicon Sweatshops: An illness in Suzhou

Did the manufacture of your iPhone make someone sick?

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 installment, GlobalPost examined 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. Though seven current and former workers said the chemical was used on Apple touch screens, Apple refused to comment.


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.