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Workers in China: ‘Your iPhone Cost Us Our Health’

NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye speaks with Wintek employees.

We arrived at the factory in Suzhou, China, a few hours early, anxious not to miss our opportunity to speak with workers.

Through a labor rights activist based in Hong Kong, NewsHour producer Mary Jo Brooks had made contact with a group of employees of a supplier involved in the production of iPhones that had complained that toxic fumes from the process poisoned them.

They gave Apple a black eye, but the company maintains that the problems have been resolved.

Our plan was to meet them outside their factory, Wintek, at the end of their shift. We showed up early, hoping to shoot images from outside the plant. We were somewhat apprehensive, knowing that the Chinese authorities had placed limitations on the ability of western journalists to move freely around China.

Sure enough, as soon as cameraman Denis Levkovich began shooting, a uniformed Wintek security officer approached and signaled for us to stop. But he quickly seemed to change his mind. As Denis continued, other guards motioned for us merely not to block the driveway.

Soon after the shift ended at 5 p.m., workers streamed out of the factory to waiting buses that would take them to their dormitories a mile or so away. We were surprised by the ages of many of the workers, who seemed to be in their early 20s.

After several of the buses filled up and drove away, a group of eight or so workers approached us. They seemed unconcerned that anybody might be watching them and grateful to meet reporters who wanted to tell their stories. One man jumped in our van to direct us to the block of apartments where the workers lived. As we drove there, others took buses to meet us.

The drab residential area resembled old-fashioned public housing projects in the U.S. Clothes hung on the balconies of the high-rise apartments. We walked up to a second floor unit to a room shared by two of the workers. As we set up for a group interview, one worker after another started cramming into the room, until a dozen or so filled the place. Men and women ranging in age from 20 to 36 crowded into the room, many clutching medical records to document their treatment in local hospitals.

They explained that they had been exposed to the chemical n-hexane, used to clean the screens of iPhones. Their symptoms, they said, ranged from numbness and tingling to paralysis. One man had been hospitalized for 10 months. “Your iPhones cost us our health,” said another.

One after another, they spoke passionately about how the effects of the poison still linger and how they believe their potential for productive lives has been cut short. Women taking medication to fight the symptoms said they will be unable to bear children for as long as they take the drugs.

They want Apple to apologize and to pay damages to compensate for future lost earnings. Apple has issued a report saying that “Apple has verified that all affected workers have been treated successfully.” (Read the company’s full 2011 supplier responsibility report here). It put the number of sick employees at 137.

The workers themselves calculate that as many as 200 may have been affected and dispute the contention that the treatments have been successful. They say their symptoms continue. We wanted to talk to officials at Apple, but our repeated phone calls were not returned.

As we left the apartment complex, it became apparent that any concerns we may have harbored about the possibility of our work being impeded by Chinese government authorities were unwarranted – at least for this story. The only officials refusing to cooperate with us were with Apple and its Chinese supplier.

Our series from China on worker safety and health care reform will air soon on the PBS NewsHour.

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