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The cold calculus of supply chain economics
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 value of a Chinese factory worker’s life can be neatly calculated with a simple mathematical formula.
The actual number varies by city and a few other particulars, but the total amount is never very much. In Suzhou, where dozens of workers have fallen seriously ill with nerve damage in the past year from chemical poisoning, a factory worker’s health is worth about 130,000 yuan ($19,046) by the government's calculation.
The number is derived in part by subtracting the worker’s age (usually 21) from the average life expectancy (79), then multiplying by a series of precise percentages, including one to designate the severity of illness, carefully prescribed in the government’s labor regulations. It is cold, calculated business.
Suzhou lawyer Wang Luyuan knows the formulas inside and out. In a cabinet near his desk, he stores a stack of slim brown folders containing the mathematical worth and medical details of 32 factory workers sickened by exposure to n-hexane — the toxic solvent Wintek illegally used in making electronic touch screens. The company has admitted that more than 60 workers were sickened by hexane exposure. Wang now represents about half of them.
Apple has rejected interview requests, but workers say they were using hexane primarily to clean touch screens for products made by the U.S. tech giant.
For months, the lawyer Wang has methodically worked through the steps required to get every yuan owed the factory workers, proving they got sick on the job and that they can’t return to the factory lines.
Wang’s role is nothing like that of the trial lawyer often glamorized in Hollywood portrayals as the defender of victims of irresponsible corporations. The way Chinese law works, these workers cannot file a class-action lawsuit or ask for damages beyond exactly what is laid out in the rule books. Factories can, if they’re so inclined, plan in advance what it would cost if they made a worker sick.
So Wang’s work consists of proving through documentation that the workers were poisoned on the job, and that they can no longer do their jobs because of their illness. Then he goes to the math. “We have to investigate step-by-step,” he said. “So far, it’s been pretty easy to prove.”
Wang is a slight man, soft-spoken and calm. He works methodically through the cases, scratching out formulas quickly on the back of an envelope to explain how the system works and how the government calculates the worth of a human life.
Though this is the first time Wang has dealt with a case of mass n-hexane poisoning, he has been at this for 20 years. Given that Chinese factories often scrimp on safety to save money, there is no shortage of work-related personal injury cases. The Wintek workers found Wang because his firm handled an unrelated n-hexane case a few years ago. Use of n-hexane is legal in China, but requires special safety equipment and government permission that Wintek did not get.
The company, Wang said, “has been very cooperative.”
And though they have been waiting for months in the local hospital for their court cases to crawl through the system, the Suzhou factory workers are relatively lucky. The company has paid their hefty medical bills and it’s been easy to prove they got sick on the job.
“Their situation is actually a lot better than the vast majority of workers who have workplace illness claims in China,” said Geoffrey Crothall, communications director for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.
There were roughly 14,300 new cases of workplace-caused illness in China in 2007, according to government statistics, but many more cases went undocumented because the process is so complex and cumbersome, particularly for migrant workers who make up the bulk of factory workforces. Illness often manifests years after the work was done, and creating a paper trail that traces back to a company can be near impossible.
“The problem is that the process from making a claim to actually getting compensation is incredibly complicated and incredibly time consuming,” said Crothall. “We’ve had cases lasting decades.”
Though Wang deals in formulas and strict mathematical guidelines, he’s come to know the young workers who were made sick by the giant electronics factory. Huge multinational companies like Apple, he says, should ultimately be held responsible when workers making their parts get sick on the job.
“These are young people,” said Wang. “They still have a long life ahead.”
Other stories in this latest installment:
Silicon Sweatshops: The series