Harsh reality behind Apple scandal

08:20, February 22, 2011      

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While fans eagerly await the release date for iPad 2, which Apple Inc is keeping secret, a Chinese worker in a plant that produces Apple components has his own secret.

For 13 months, Hu Jie has painfully kept from his wife and daughter the fact that he's one of 137 employees harmed by exposure to a toxic chemical at an Apple supplier factory in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

Employees of United Win Technology suffered muscular atrophy and damage to their nervous system after using a chemical, n-hexane, to clean touch panels from August 2008 to July 2009. The company is owned by Taiwan-based Wintek Corp, which produces iPhone components for Apple.

Apple Inc acknowledged the scandal for the first time on Feb 15, in its Apple Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report. The company said 137 workers at the Suzhou facility had suffered adverse health effects following exposure to n-hexane. The factory has 16,000 employees.

As of Monday, 100 of the 137 had left the factory with compensation of 80,000 to 140,000 yuan ($12,166 to $21,291), according to Liu Jie, press officer for the industrial park where the plant is situated. All signed agreements with United Win Technology that exempt it from responsibility if their health worsens, Liu said.

The cost of China being the world's factory is sometimes paid by workers or the environment, and this is just one of many such instances. But calls for factory owners and big international brands to be socially responsible - to build a greener and safer supply chain and to alleviate harm to workers and the environment - have never been louder, environmentalists say.

As public attention to misdeeds increases, they say, it will be more difficult for these major beneficiaries of "made in China" to dodge criticism.

The workers

As a factory equipment maintenance worker at Wintek's Suzhou facility, Hu Jie works from 8 in the morning till 8 at night, seven days a week. He was diagnosed in January 2010 with damage from n-hexane, but he decided to keep the physical and mental pains to himself until he could be sure everything was all right.

Hu, 31, said he still suffers occasional symptoms of nervous system failure. When he spent time with his family in neighboring Anhui province for Chinese New Year, he said, he forced himself to smile to cover up sudden tingling in his legs.

"I don't want to make them worried. My wife asked me many times about the scandal, but I simply told her I'm not one of the victims."

With a monthly income of less than 3,000 yuan (US$457) - his wife recently lost her job - Hu has to support a family of three and pay 400 yuan a month for his 6-year-old daughter's education.

Hu and the 36 other affected employees who still work at the factory have gotten some help. The local government notified them that 10,000 to 30,000 yuan in disability benefits from the social security fund would be included in their pay, and Hu said he received 15,000 yuan on Saturday.

Many of the 37 are reluctant to undergo follow-up medical examinations offered by Suzhou Industrial Park, said Liu, its press officer. Hu expressed his distrust of the local hospitals.

"Many victims among us have not fully recovered," he said. "We really hope Apple, a global leading company that claims a safe supply chain, can work with its supplier company to have an independent third party appraise our health conditions and give us due and fair treatment."

Many other affected employees were hospitalized and received medical treatment. Hu considers himself less fortunate because he was prescribed only medication and continued working at the factory.

The local hospital deemed his condition not serious enough for hospitalization, he said. "Six months later, I stopped taking the medication when the company stopped paying for it, but I'm almost sure that I'm still not quite right."

Hu said he still feels occasional pain in his left leg, and his left little finger is always numb. He said he also has become easy prey to colds and fever, which makes him think his immune system might have weakened. But that's not the worst, he said.

"Above all, I seem to have lost grip upon my life. I cannot make plans for my future, as I'm not sure to what extent my health conditions will allow them," Hu said. "I have no other choice but to continue working at the factory for fear the disease will return and the ensuing high costs of medication, which I cannot afford on my own."

Although Apple said in its supplier responsibility report that a majority of the 137 workers had returned to work at the factory, 100 chose to leave with one-time compensation.

Yao Xiaoping, a 22-year-old from Shaanxi province, said the first thing he did after discharge from the hospital eight months ago was to negotiate with the company for compensation. "The company said I can only get that on a promise of leaving the factory and signing an exemption agreement, which means the company would not take any responsibility if my health conditions worsened in the future."

Yao finally decided to quit in November, with 90,000 yuan in compensation.

He returned to his hometown in Xuzhou and is still recuperating. Yao said his legs and hands still feel numb and that he is always tired after "very little physical exertion. I will try to find a new job after full recovery, although I'm not sure how long that would take.

"To be frank, I don't know what to do if the worst is to come," Yao said. "The compensation would be a drop in the ocean for medical treatment of the disease."

By Qian Yanfeng in Shanghai and Duan Yan and Li Yao in Beijing, China Daily
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