Wed, Feb 23, 2011 - Page 11 News List

Chinese workers appeal to Apple over health worries

‘INVISIBLE KILLER’:Workers at a Taiwanese-owned factory in China were exposed to a chemical that can cause lasting nerve damage, and say that they were insufficiently compensated

Reuters, SUZHOU, CHINA

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

Wintek (勝華), the Taiwanese company that owns the factory in 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 chief executive Steve Jobs that workers showed reporters. 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.

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 hospitalized because of poisoning, but all had recovered, a conclusion also offered by Wintek.

Apple declined to comment on the workers’ letter and referred a reporter back to its supplier report.

However, 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 their medical bills taken care of.

“I hope Apple can respect our labor and our dignity. I hope they can stand up and apologize 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 (黃忠傑) 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.”

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 hydride can cause long-term and possibly irreversible nerve damage, said Lam Ching-wan (林青雲), a chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong.

According to the 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.

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