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Silicon Sweatshops: An illness in Suzhou

Did the manufacture of your iPhone make someone sick?

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.”

Other stories in this latest installment:

What's a worker worth?

The strange death of Li Liang

Silicon Sweatshops: The series

Special Report: Silicon Sweatshops

Shattered dreams

Disposable workforce

The China connection

A promising model