Labor 2.0: Supply-Chain Sickness

As reported in The Guardian, after exposure to the toxic solvent n-hexane, at least 62 workers involved in preparing Apple components, including iPhone touch screens, have been hospitalized, many for months, and at least one may have died.

Despite its known toxicity, n-hexane was used as a cleaning solvent at a factory in Suzou, China, owned and operated by the Taiwanese electronics giant Wintek, which supplies components for a number of well-known brands including Apple.

Chinese workers link sickness to n-hexane and Apple iPhone screens: “Prolonged over-exposure to n-hexane can cause extensive damage to the peripheral nervous system and ultimately the spinal cord, leading to muscular weakness and atrophy and even paralysis, said Paul Whitehead, a toxicology consultant and member of the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry. It can also affect male fertility. Recovery can take a year or more.

The chemical’s potential risks are well-known in industry, as are safe exposure limits. But the Wintek manager who decided to switch from alcohol to n-hexane for cleaning – apparently because it dried more quickly – did not assess the dangers. It was used without proper ventilation.

(via World news | The Guardian.)

It seems pretty obvious that the manager made the switch to boost productivity – and profits for Wintek – perhaps to meet the insatiable demand for iPhones (and now iPads). Given the absence of unions independent unions, the exploitation common in Chinese factories, and the minimal level of occupational health and safety rules and enforcement, it probably seemed like a no-brainer. After all, the factory wouldn’t have to pay any medical costs.

A large percentage of the workers at comprador factories such as this are migrant workers from rural China – part of the largest wave of human migration in the history of the planet – who, because of Chinese laws on residency (see, eg, hukou – though I am informed this entry is pretty poor), are often effectively illegal immigrants in their own country. As such they have limited recourse to things like official housing and medical care – and are regularly subjected to exploitation by employers and crackdowns by the authorities.

These workers seldom try to complain through official channels about things like working conditions, since they have no legal right to work where they are, and in any case there are a million more rural migrant workers just waiting to take their place. A subjugated workforce, prey to exploitative practices, with few avenues for complaint or redress. The only thing unusual about this case is that the seriously injured workers are getting medical care and that the story has received some international coverage.

But not much. The story has been kicking around for months, and this is the highest profile coverage it has so far received – perhaps prompted by all the attention the iPad has been getting. The fun and important digital culture website Boing Boing – whose readership includes a heavy concentration of iPhone and Mac users – covered the story back in late February, drawing on a report from China’s state television network CCTV and English-language coverage in China Tech News:

Chinese media reports worker poisoning at Apple, Nokia touchscreen maker Wintek: “at least one worker has died, with others injured, from N-hexane poisoning at a factory which supplies components for Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch. The report alleges hazardous work conditions and disputes over pay and safety issues at a Wintek Corporation subsidiary in Suzhou…. I can’t find any Western (or more trusted, independent, China-based) reporting on this yet, with which to validate the claims. I’ve reached out to both Apple and Wintek for comment.

(via Boing Boing.)

As Boing Boing suggested in an update to their original post, the story seems to have been broken in Western news media by The Toronto Star in January:

Chinese workers: Pay or poison?: “SUZHOU, CHINA–In a nation known for social stability – with pliant workers willing to labour long hours for little pay – the scene was stunning.

Some 2,000 workers milled about the grounds of a local high-tech factory, overturned a vehicle, smashed computers, hurled objects at police trying to restore order, and succeeded in shutting down one of the largest producers of mobile phone panels in the world.

By Chinese standards, it was chaotic.

The wildcat strike here this month at a factory owned by Taiwan’s Wintek – believed by industry analysts to supply Apple, among other brands – was mainly about money.

Frustration erupted following rumours that a yearly bonus wouldn’t be paid for the second year running. The bonus amounted to $200.

But some say there was a bigger issue at play: poisoned workers.

At least 47 were hospitalized last year after exposure to hexane, a toxic chemical Wintek was using to clean mobile phone panels.

Today, 36 workers remain in hospital, company executives told the Toronto Star – six months after the company says it quit using hexane. But the executives denied rumours swirling about the factory floor that some workers died.

(via thestar.com.)

(AOL’s tech blog/website Engadget also covered this protest – emphasising the impact on availability of consumer goodies – and provided video and photos.)

But the suggestion by The Star that labor protests in China are infrequent and that workers are “pliant” is completely false. Almost every day in China sees protests, demonstrations, even riots by workers – often rural migrant workers – over working conditions, unpaid wages, sexual exploitation, beatings and police harassment. These protests are for the most part kept quite in the Chinese media and seldom covered by overseas news outlets, but even with the limited coverage available it is possible to get a picture of labor unrest that is completely at odds with the compliancy suggested by The Star. Here’s just a tiny sampling:

  • in July 2009 a riot broke out at the Tonghua Iron and Steel Works in Jilin Province in northern China involving 30,000 workers, and leaving a 100 injured and one executive dead (NYTimes.com);
  • over 1,000 workers rioted over poor working conditions at a factory in Guangdong province which produces toys for McDonald’s and other firms (China Labor Watch);
  • hundreds of migrant workers angry over mistreatment of a fellow worker surrounded a police station in eastern China and smashed cars and motorbikes, only two weeks after a crowd of 30,000 people in southwest China set fire to a police station, angry over what many believed was an official cover-up of the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of a teenage girl (Singapore’s Straits Times);
  • and only last week, according to a report in The South China Morning Post, at least 41 people were injured when protesters and riot police clashed at a labor rally in Macau.

These frequent labor protests in China have been the subject of academic books and journal articles (eg, here), as well as appearing in numerous videos available through YouTube, often surreptitiously filmed, showing large, and occasionally violent, protests by these supposedly “pliant” Chinese workers.

The n-hexane poisoning incident is not the first time there have been problems with Wintek’s labor practices or with factories in Suzhou producing Apple products. In 2006, the BBC reported that at Suzhou factories making iPods and iPod Shuffles workers were subjected to “slave” conditions:

iPod ‘slave’ claims investigated: “Apple is investigating a newspaper report that staff in some of its Chinese iPod factories work long hours for low pay and in “slave” conditions.

The article in the Mail on Sunday alleged that workers received as little as £27 a month, doing 15-hour shifts making the iconic mp3 player.

Employees at the factory lived in dormitories housing 100 people and outsiders were banned, the paper said.

Apple said it did not tolerate its supplier code of conduct being broken….

The report said that at a different factory, in Suzhou near Shanghai, which makes the iPod shuffle, workers were paid £54 per month – but that half of that went on accommodation and food within the factory complex.

According to the Mail on Sunday, women rather than men were employed on the production line.

Apple is one of thousands of companies that has outsourced manufacturing to China where labour costs are low.

IPods carry the text: “Designed in California, Made in China”.

(via BBC NEWS | Business.)

And in their reporting on the n-hexane poisoning, the new internet journalism site GlobalPost cited a long history of labor violations at Wintek:

Apple News | Workers Rights: “Wintek is no stranger to controversy, and labor-rights groups have targeted it as a problematic employer with repeated violations of labor codes. 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.

(via GlobalPost.)

Down at the sharp end of the supply chain, in factories in Suzhou and Guatemala and Vietnam, we have the workers, mostly women of color, putting in crushing hours, breathing toxic fumes, subject to sexual exploitation by their bosses, living in bunk houses in what amount to company towns, under conditions like indentured servitude, and eking out a poverty-stricken existence.

At the other end, executives, entrepreneurs and stockholders breathe in the clean air of the Pacific Coast, drive hybrid SUVs and dine on Niman Ranch beef and organic wine in their solar-powered, wood-panelled mansions.

In between, making it all possible – the consumers. You and me.

Apple claims that it investigates issues like this and does not tolerate violations of its “supplier code of conduct.” Wintek has fired the local manager responsible for the n-hexane poisoning of their workers. But the managers come and go, even the factories come and go – quite frequently, in fact, in the comprador ghettos of Shanghai, Guangdong and Shenzhen – while the practices and problems continue. There are a central component of the globalized supply chain that feeds our consumer habit.

I was going to say they are a “fact of life,” but in fact that’s precisely what they are not. They are a fact of disease and death for the workers sickened and killed by toxic workplaces and 15- or 18-hour days, and beaten or murdered by factory security and “pliant” government forces. These conditions are neither natural nor immutable. However, they may be necessary if we are to be able to purchase iPod Touches for US$199 and iPads for US$499, Asus netbooks for US$479, and Nokia E63 Quad-band Cell Phones for US$189. These prices depend on the labor practices down there at the dark end of the supply chain, in squalid bunk rooms, toxic fumes and misery.

For more…

A non-governmental organization founded in Hong Kong in 1994, China Labour Bulletin has grown from a small monitoring and research group into a proactive outreach organization that seeks to defend and promote the rights of workers in China. We have extensive links and wide-ranging co-operative programs with labour groups, law firms and academics throughout China, as well as with the international labour movement.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the tripartite UN agency that brings together governments, employers and workers of its member states in common action to promote decent work throughout the world.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is devoted to advancing opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Its main aims are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue in handling work-related issues.

In promoting social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights, the organization continues to pursue its founding mission that labour peace is essential to prosperity. Today, the ILO helps advance the creation of decent jobs and the kinds of economic and working conditions that give working people and business people a stake in lasting peace, prosperity and progress.

The Center for Labor Research and Education (Labor Center) is a public service and outreach program of the UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (formerly the Institute of Industrial Relations), and an affiliate of the UC Miguel Contreras Labor Program. Founded in 1964, the Labor Center conducts research and education on issues related to labor and employment. The Labor Center’s curricula and leadership trainings serve to educate a diverse new generation of labor leaders. The Labor Center carries out research on topics such as job quality and workforce development issues, and we work with unions, government, and employers to develop innovative policy perspectives and programs. We also provide an important source of research and information on unions and the changing workforce for students, scholars, policymakers and the public.

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