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Apple news: Workers' rights the focus again

Another flare-up hits a Chinese high-tech factory.

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.