A three-part investigation into the mystery illness of workers, and the death of one employee, at the Wintek factory in Suzhou supplying Apple and Nokia.
By Kathleen McLaughin at Global Post.
Did the manufacture of your iPhone make someone sick?
What's a worker worth?
The strange death of Li Liang
17 March 2010
SUZHOU, China — The mysterious illness began with an odd tingling of the fingers one week, a creeping numbness in the feet the next.
Sometimes, deep and painful muscle cramps would wake the factory workers from their dorm beds. Weeks later, many of the workers simply couldn’t walk right, staggering across the factory grounds, and struggling with once-nimble fingers to clean the delicate touch screens used in trendy gadgets. They had no idea that as they worked, the solvent they used to clean the screens was attacking their peripheral nerves. Unseen damage left them weak, shaky and often in pain. Sometimes their vision would blur. Headaches were common.
GlobalPost recently visited a hospital ward where more than two dozen sick workers remain under care for nerve damage sustained last summer at Wintek’s factory in Suzhou. After interviewing seven former and current workers, as well as families, friends and labor activists, plus reviewing medical records and corporate documents, we’ve learned the health damage done to workers is more severe than portrayed in previous accounts.
All the workers interviewed said n-hexane — the chemical that made people sick — was used in making touch screens for Apple, particularly the iPhone and iTouch. Apple rejected repeated interview requests, refused to confirm whether its products were involved and directed questions to its 2010 Supplier Responsibility audit, which does not address chemical poisoning.
In a highly competitive industry where consumer demand drives companies to squeeze costs out of complex supply chains, the Suzhou case raises broad questions in China about labor rights, worker safety and the thorny issue of compensation.
In a quiet wing of the Suzhou No. 5 Hospital, the rooms have taken on the look of a cheerful factory dorm. Dozens of young workers from around China have taken over the floor, and tried to make it homier with simple decorations, their laundry hanging from the balconies and crafting projects splayed across the beds. The wing is cheerful, the air of fear and uncertainty having lifted somewhat since the workers arrived last summer. Their health has improved, but they won’t be leaving for a while.
“At first I thought I was getting tired and weak because I was working so much,” recalled one 24-year-old woman, describing how she worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week before she got sick. “After some weeks, I knew I needed to see a doctor.”
Last summer, workers began fainting on the job and dozens made their way to the hospital. The company started testing workers and found mass exposure: Wintek says 62 employees had confirmed nerve damage from inhalation exposure to n-hexane, which the company admits it used illegally for nearly a year in the production process. The illness, a form of peripheral neuropathy, came on so slowly that most didn’t know they were ill until it was serious. Workers say others were sickened, but left the factory without treatment.
Their troubles began in October 2008, when Wintek’s Suzhou factory introduced n-hexane to clean touch screens in the final stages of production. According to the local government, the company lacked necessary permits to handle the toxin, which dries more quickly than alcohol, shaving seconds from production time and speeding up the line.
Wintek has fired the factory chief, according to company spokesman Huang Zhongjie in Taipei. Huang also said the factory stopped using n-hexane in August and has engaged in outreach and education for both sick workers and current employees.
Worker unrest over the poisonings reached a boiling point in January, with a violent strike at the plant and calls for answers. Many demanded to know whether factory engineer Li Liang died from chemical inhalation.
Huang says Wintek has raised salaries at the plant, and a current factory worker confirmed the wages have gone up. "We have put more attention to employees' safety and health and have assigned a higher level authority to govern and enhance the relevant management and audit system," said Wintek spokesman James Chen. "Also, we will enhance the communication with our employees for a better understanding for both management and employees."
But that hasn’t quelled ongoing concerns from factory workers over their safety. The effects on human bodies are well-documented, but workers’ health was a secondary concern when n-hexane entered the Suzhou factory.
Each worker was required to clean 1,000 screens per day, dipping cotton cloths into a tray of hexane, swabbing the glass screens carefully and moving on, according to workers interviewed by GlobalPost. Over the course of a 12-hour shift, workers said one person would go through six trays of n-hexane, protected only by latex gloves and simple cotton masks — nothing close to the equipment that Chinese safety standards require for handling the chemical.
The case highlights problems with the widespread practice of technology giants’ outsourcing and fragmented supply chains. There is no single iPhone or iTouch factory, for example. Instead, outside companies are hired to make components and assemble the phones or other products. Taiwan-based Wintek is one of the biggest such companies, and it also makes components for tech giant Nokia.
Nokia says it confirmed n-hexane was not used on its components in the Suzhou factory — an assertion that the workers back up. The substance was used in the cleaning room on the second floor, the floor designated for Apple products, six former and current employees said.
Because Apple will not agree to be interviewed, it is impossible to verify exactly what the workers made. But a current factory employee on the second floor snapped a photo for GlobalPost of what appears to be a nearly finished iPhone in production. Six other current and former factory employees said they handled iPhone and iTouch screens and saw screens for the iPad tablet computer in the factory. The four hospitalized workers interviewed by GlobalPost instantly recognized an iTouch when shown the gadget, and handled it with familiarity.
There are tangible steps companies like Apple can take to protect workers, labor-rights groups say. Employees should be allowed to organize unions, said Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. Also, nothing beats on-the-ground inspections from the companies that produce the final products.
“What they have to do is take a more hands-on approach,” said Crothall, noting Apple’s recently released supplier compliance report, which found multiple problems but did not name the offending factories. “There’s nothing in that Apple report that focuses on this particular factory,” said Crothall. “Apple should be commended on taking some measures, but it just needs to go further.”
More than a year after they were first exposed to n-hexane and eight months after most entered the hospital, 41 workers await medical clearance to resume their lives. They have mostly recovered, with some lingering tremors and pains, but little knowledge of potential long-term consequences. The four who shared their stories said though they feel physically better, they’re shaken.
“I won’t work in another factory again,” says one woman, a 21-year-old from Anhui province. “My health is more important than any job.”
She is dressed in pink pajamas under a puffy black vest. She and the others sit atop their hospital beds in a room that over these eight months has become their home. They are anxious to leave it. The women are young, ranging in age from 20 to 24, and three of the four were away from home for the first time when they got sick. They said some workers who fell ill left immediately and went home, probably going uncounted in Wintek’s tally. Those who stayed got their health care paid for and a chance at some disability compensation.
So what do these workers, who earned about $220 a month and lost nearly a year of their lives to illness, think of customers who buy the products that made them sick?
“I haven’t really thought about it before,” says the woman in the pink pajamas, pausing to consider.
Then, she decides, and says in a steady voice: “It would be good for the people who use those phones so happily to consider the sacrifice we made.”
What's a worker worth?
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.”
The strange death of Li Liang
SUZHOU, China — The only certainty about factory worker Li Liang’s death is that nobody will ever know for sure what killed him.
What is certain is that Li's death unleashed a wave of fear, anger and protest over chemical exposure tied to the complex supply chains that make some of the world's best-selling high tech gadgets.
In December, the 26-year-old engineer collapsed on the factory bus on his way to work and died later in a local hospital. Family friends say his father was discouraged from seeking an autopsy, talked out of bringing a case with the labor bureau and pressed to cremate his son’s body quickly. Coworkers were told he had a heart attack.
Li’s family is bound by contract not to talk about it. With his young body now just ashes, any evidence is gone.
On Dec. 25, a week after he died, Li’s father signed a contract with Wintek’s Chinese subsidiary. In it, the company agreed to give Li’s family 268,000 yuan ($39,260) in medical expenses and humanitarian aid, some of which came from coworker donations. In exchange, Li’s father agreed not to speak to the media and not to press the case forward. Payment was to be made after the body was cremated.
Li Liang’s death and his employer’s quick payment to the family while demanding they keep quiet are at the center of a controversy that has raged since he died, on the internet and amid a violent strike that shook the Wintek factory in January. Yet there is little indication that Li died of anything but a heart attack. Prolonged exposure to n-hexane — the solvent that landed dozens of Wintek workers in local hospitals — is known to damage nerves to the point of paralysis, but is not so clearly linked to death.
In January, questions over his death helped ignite a firestorm over factory conditions that blew up into a violent strike at the factory, when 2,000 people walked off the job. China’s typically staid, state-run media took up the issue, with the English-language China Daily amid others reporting on Li Liang’s strange death and interviewing colleagues who blamed it on the chemical.
In a story republished by the official government newspaper, the China Daily quoted a worker as saying: “The truth has been hidden from public view. There are people dying from long-term exposure in the factory, but no one is paying attention to that.”
That Li died amid a spate of workers falling seriously ill from chemical poisoning on the job raises troubling questions for Li’s friends and coworkers. While the factory gave his family an unusually generous payout, the company denies his death is work-related. A Taiwan-based spokesman for Wintek, which owns the massive LCD screen factory where Li Liang worked, said that with a workforce of more than 10,000 people, it’s not extraordinary for one employee to die of natural causes in a year.
China labor law experts said the document — which was not given to GlobalPost by Li’s family — reads like a standard compensation contract given to families of men who die in coal-mine accidents. The amount is typical for a workplace death. This contract has a twist: it specifically says the company is not liable for his death.
It is not unusual for a Chinese company to compensate the family of a dead worker, nor is it unusual for a company to offer humanitarian aid. What are unusual are the language and circumstances of this particular agreement.
“If it’s not a work-related injury, what are they giving them compensation for?” asked Geoff Crothall, an editor of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, a labor rights group that monitors China.
The death came a very bad time for Wintek. Factory workers describe an atmosphere of fear and uncertainly when their colleagues began falling ill last year, after learning the chemical they handled for months was making them sick.
“I was shocked when I heard about his death and I immediately thought of the hexane,” said a former coworker and close friend of Li. “We knew it was dangerous, but we never really talked about it.”
So disputed are the facts of Li Liang’s death that friends, coworkers and bosses can’t agree on whether he ever handled the chemical that Wintek’s Suzhou subsidiary used illegally in production of touch screens. His friends say he didn’t work in the cleaning room, but he would have come into contact with the chemical daily.
There are a few facts not in dispute: Li was soft-spoken and came from a poor family of farmers two hours from Suzhou. He clearly engendered in his friends a fierce protectiveness. They believe he wasn’t sick, that he shouldn’t have died.
Two Beijing labor lawyers said it’s unusual for the company to demand that Li Liang’s father declare his death was unrelated to work. Just under basic Chinese labor law, if a worker falls ill on company property and dies within 48 hours, the death can be classified as a work-related and the company might be held responsible. The law and the facts, the attorney said, rather than the contract, should determine what killed the worker.
In Li Liang’s case, those essential facts may never be known.