Chinese workers appeal to Apple over health worries

22 February 2011
By Rachael Fergusson
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Apple umbrella outside store

Credit: (c) Reuters

Chinese workers at a factory making touch screens on contract for Apple have urged the US company to help address their grievances over a chemical poisoning they said could still harm their health.

Wintek , the Taiwanese company that owns the factory in east China's Suzhou industrial park, has said it used hexyl hydride, also called n-hexane, from May 2008 to August 2009, but stopped after discovering it was making workers ill.

"This is a killer, a killer that strikes invisibly," said a Chinese-language copy of the letter meant for Apple CEO Steve Jobs that workers showed Reuters. An English version had been sent to Apple.

"From when hexyl hydride was used, monthly profits at Apple and Wintek have gone up by tens of millions every month, the accumulated outcome of workers' lives and health," said the letter, signed by five workers claiming to represent employees.

Wintek said it had used the chemical, which evaporates faster than alcohol, to speed up production of touch screens for Apple products. It has since gone back to using alcohol.

Apple, which announced blockbuster profits in January, has been dogged by criticism of work conditions at its China-based suppliers. Last year, its main China supplier Foxconn was hit by over a dozen apparent worker suicides that critics blamed on harsh factory conditions.

The poisonings were mentioned in a recent report from Apple, which sources many of its strong-selling iPhones, iPads and other devices to contract manufacturers in China.

That report said 137 workers had been hospitalised because of poisoning but had all recovered, a conclusion also offered by Wintek.

Apple declined to comment on the workers' letter and referred back to its supplier report.

But some of the workers at Wintek's sprawling plant in Suzhou said the Taiwanese factory-owner had not given enough compensation to affected workers, had pressured those who took compensation to give up their jobs, and had not offered assurances that workers who may suffer fresh bouts of illness from the poisoning will have medical bills take care of.

"I hope Apple can respect our labour and our dignity. I hope they can stand up and apologise to us," said Jia Jingchuan, a 27-year-old production technician for Wintek who said he fell ill from the hexyl hydride, which workers said was used to clean iPhone touch screens.

Wintek spokesman Jay Huang said that all staff who needed medical treatment because of the n-hexane poisoning had been treated, and that the company has reverted to using alcohol to clean the panels that it manufactures for Apple.

"We are unable to cope with the medical costs of treatment in the future," said Guo Ruiqiang, a worker at the Wintek plant, who said he was suffering fresh symptoms he blamed on the poisoning. "We can only stay in the factory and see what happens. We just feel very helpless now," said Guo.

He and other workers said the poisoning caused sweaty hands and feet, sudden numbness in hands, swelling and pain in the feet, tiredness and faintness.

Daily exposure to hexyl hydrid can cause long-term and possibly irreversible nerve damage, said Lam Ching-wan, a chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong. According to US National Library of Medicine, there have been dozens of documented cases where workers suffered nerve and eye damage from exposure to n-hexane.

Workers said they wore protective gear, including masks and goggles, but worked in an enclosed, poorly ventilated space. In its report, Apple said that Wintek had switched to the chemical from alcohol without changing the ventilation system.

Jia, the technician, said that after working for a year on the production for Apple touch screens, he felt there was something wrong, but ignored the problems, blaming them on work stress or moodiness.

Soon he heard other workers were hospitalised and suspected it had something to do with the chemical hexyl hydride, which managers had said could be safely used.

Jia went to a hospital in Suzhou in August 2009, when doctors told him he had nerve damage. Doctors soon found many of his workmates had similar problems and were advised to be hospitalised.

He stayed for eight months in hospital. But when he returned to work in October 2010, the symptoms of poisoning reappeared, he said.

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