Apple news: Workers' rights the focus again

BEIJING, China — Workers at a Chinese factory believed to make electronic components for tech giants like Apple and Nokia are back on the job after a violent strike to protest what they believe was deadly on-the-job exposure to toxic chemicals.

According to accounts from employees and Chinese state-run media, about 2,000 of the 10,000 employees at Wintek’s Suzhou-based factory staged a violent walkout earlier this month when they heard their year-end bonuses has been eliminated.

Tensions at the plant, located about two hours from Shanghai, were simmering for months over the deaths of several workers last summer. Protesters said they believe four co-workers died from exposure to a toxic chemical, hexane, used in LED screen production. Angry strikers vandalized factory equipment and riot police were called in.

“The truth has been hidden from public view. There are people dying from long-term exposure to the (toxin) used in the factory but no one is paying attention to that. There needs to be further investigation,” the official China Daily newspaper quoted a worker surnamed Zhu, who took part in the protest, as saying.

Neither Wintek, which is based in Taiwan, nor Apple, responded to requests for comment. Labor and tech groups say the factory makes touch screens for Apple products, including the iPhone.

China Daily reported that during a local government press conference on the matter, officials said there were no reports of unnatural deaths at the factory. They also said more than 40 factory workers suffered from chemical exposure and were treated and released.

In a written press release, Wintek did not address the chemical poisoning allegations but said workers were mistaken that their bonuses had been canceled. The bonuses will be issued at Chinese New Year in February, not in December, it said.

“Following discussions between the company and employees that were held with the assistance of (the) local government, the issue was settled and there was no effect on production capacity or production line operations,” the company said.

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.

Wintek’s refusal to address the toxins issue seemed to feed the factory rumor mill. Employees 750 miles away at Wintek’s Dongguan electronic components factory said Monday they heard rumors about unusual deaths in Suzhou, and many were worried about their own health.

“We heard a girl died in a strange manner from chemicals at the Suzhou factory, but we weren’t allowed to talk about it,” said an employee of the Dongguan factory who didn’t want his name used. “They said anyone who talked about it would be fired.”

Debby Chan, a project manager for the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), has helped investigate ongoing problems at Wintek factories. Chan said a lack of transparency and information provided to factory workers made the situation in Suzhou escalate.

“The factory stopped using hexane for cleaning their touch panels, but we’ve heard the workers are still very worried, which reflects a lack of training for workers about health and safety,” said Chan. “There’s also a lack of trust between workers and management.”

Wintek is one of many subcontractors used by well-known brands in the process of making electronics. Workers at subcontracting factories like the one in Suzhou and Dongguan often don’t know who they’re making parts for, and typically have no means to complain to the larger brands about labor violations and poor working conditions. Wintek workers, however, did complain directly to Apple last year about bad working conditions.

Despite better laws, labor violations are rampant across China, especially as companies have cut costs amid declining orders during the global financial crisis. Contracting and subcontracting factories to make electronics piece-by-piece muddies the supply chain, and makes accountability a tricky thing.

Apple’s own internal audits chronicle a pattern of labor violations at factories it uses, including widespread wage and hour violations.