30 January 2010
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.
"There are people who went to hospital," deputy general manager Zhang Lisheng confirmed during an interview at the company's plant in Suzhou. "But no one died from hexane poisoning."
The plant shutdown on Jan. 15 secured the sought-after bonuses and production resumed that very evening. But the strike also helped shine a light on workers' health and safety in China – and served as a reminder that China's breakneck development has been costly.
Official figures show a staggering 91,000 workers died of work-related deaths in 2008, according to the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong non-governmental organization that tracks workplace issues.
At the same time, the government registered 13,700 new cases of occupational disease.
Workers do have rights in China and local governments are supposed to enforce worker safety, the China Labour Bulletin's Geoffrey Crothall notes.
"But in reality, enforcement tends to be lax and it's almost always up to the workers themselves to take matters into their own hands," whether appealing to government, filing lawsuits or launching strikes.
Strikes are risky in China, of course, since independent unions do not exist. Wintek's workers gambled for their bonuses – and won.
But the health issue still lingers, and workers appear to have been kept in the dark – and may still be.
In interviews, text messages, online postings and media reports, workers say they became aware of hexane use at the plant only in July and August when workers first began showing symptoms. Those complained of a numbing, tingling sensation in their legs and arms.
At full force, hexane can attack the central nervous system with debilitating effect. But a local government health office told the Star last week that by July, the toxic chemical had already been used in the plant for 10 months.
Workers declined to give their names, exercising caution. Last spring, 19 workers at the company's factory in the southern city of Dongguan were sacked following a strike. But the fact that Wintek used hexane for nearly a year could be a troubling detail, since scientific data show occasional exposure to hexane might not be as hazardous, depending on exposure levels.
The more serious risk is longer-term exposure. More troubling: symptoms can accelerate for two or three months after exposure has ended.
Last month, a Wintek worker, engineer Li Liang, collapsed at the plant and died. Company officials insist the sudden death was caused by heart disease and was not connected to hexane.
"The company explained that on the morning of Dec. 17 Li didn't feel well as he travelled to work on the company bus and fainted on arrival," one worker said in an interview.
Taken to Jiulong Hospital, the worker said, Li died 90 minutes later.
Outside Wintek's workers' compound in Suzhou's Kuatang neighbourhood, a young worker said she was tested in hospital for hexane.
"I tested positive – I had numbness, tingling in my legs, but it wasn't that serious. I feel fine now," says the girl, who has worked in the plant for more than a year.
She worked for Team 5, she explains, the team that workers say was most exposed to the chemical.
"But we don't use that chemical now."
However, she says, workers are still concerned. Like others at the plant, she "heard" some workers died from exposure to hexane. "But I'm really not sure."
In a rare act of journalistic daring last week, the state-controlled English language newspaper, China Daily, quoted a worker at the plant who would only call himself "Zhu," stressing that workers' health concerns must be taken seriously.
"The truth has been hidden from public view," Zhu told China Daily. "There are people dying from long-term exposure in the factory, but no one is paying attention to that."
Apple's press office in California did not respond to phone calls or a list of emailed questions seeking reaction to the events in Suzhou. Apple has never publicly confirmed Wintek as one of its suppliers, nor does it normally comment on its internal supplier relationships.