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Apple’s Supply-Chain Workers May Be Risking Cancer to Build Your iPhone

A new report details serious labor violations at a major Apple supplier, and evidence of worker exposure to cancer-causing benzene.

(Photo: Broken iPhone 4 via Vladimir Borozenets /

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If you thought you’d heard it all about labor violations in Apple’s supply chain, think again. A new investigative report from Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization that has revealed a litany of labor abuses throughout the tech, toy and apparel sectors in China, details inhumane, illegal and dangerous work conditions at Lens Technology, Apple’s main supplier of glass for its iPhone and Apple Watch products. Among the worst offenses is the use of benzene, a known carcinogen that is linked to high rates of adult leukemia among those exposed to it, in improperly ventilated areas.

The report, released in late September, details the results of six months of undercover research at two Lens Technology facilities in Langli and Liyuang, Hunan Province, and includes findings from more than 60 off-site interviews with workers across the company’s three main factories, including one in Shenzhen.

Benzene is used in solvents and paints in the printing departments of the Lens Technology factories, where ventilation is inadequate.

Members of SACOM conducted undercover research from January through June 2015, which included three months of peak production volume. Labor violations on various fronts were widespread. As has been documented at numerous other Apple suppliers across China, all sites were found to be in violation of China’s law that limits monthly overtime hours. According to Article 41 of Chinese labor law, monthly overtime cannot exceed 36 hours, yet undercover research and interviews with workers revealed that most regularly report as much as 60 overtime hours per month. At the Shenzhen facility, one worker reported 110 hours of monthly overtime. Technically speaking, this is a violation of Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct too, which states that overtime should not exceed 60 hours per month. However, Apple lets itself and its suppliers off the hook by adding the caveat that exceptions can be made during unusual circumstances.

Additionally, a worker referred to as “Zhang” (a pseudonym) reported that laborers working on the Apple Watch line during peak season (November through March) had only one day off for every two weeks. Others reported that in order to use that rest day they had to apply in advance, and that if they did use it, they would lose wages for that day. It is tactics such as these, as well as requiring as much as three hours of overtime per day, that result in such illegally excessive monthly overtime hours.

SACOM also found that Lens Technology regularly withholds wages for excessive amounts of time, in violation of local labor laws. By holding wages for anywhere from 15 to 30 days into the following month, the company manipulates workers into staying in their positions rather than leaving the undesirable job. Many workers reported that this system makes quitting difficult because the company has created a lengthy quitting procedure that most do not want to endure. If they leave before the procedure is complete, they lose wages withheld from the previous month.

Research revealed that Lens Technology also underreports workers’ monthly wages, so that they receive less than they should in social security and insurance, which leaves them potentially vulnerable in the future.

Being forced to work such excessive overtime hours takes a serious toll on workers’ physical and mental well-being. Their feet swell and knees ache from standing through 10-hour shifts without bathroom breaks, and like many others in China’s electronics sector, workers at Lens Technology characterize their lives at the factories as “boring” and “lonely,” according to worker testimonies collected during the investigation. They work far too much to enjoy the leisure and recreational facilities provided to them, and their ever-changing work schedules mean that they cannot form friendships with their colleagues.

But the most troubling findings of SACOM’s latest investigation pertain to the use of a known carcinogen, benzene. Though Apple banned the use of the chemical in its final assembly facilities (like Foxconn and Pegatron) in August 2014, this report raises the concern that it remains in use throughout deeper layers of the tech giant’s supply chain.

Chinese workers may be exposed to at least three times the amount of benzene legally allowed in US workplaces.

Workers report that benzene is used in solvents and paints in the printing departments of the Lens Technology factories, where ventilation is inadequate because windows are sealed. Those working in these departments report experiencing dizziness on the shop floor, and women workers report abnormal menstruation. During peak season workers may be in this setting for as much as 10 hours per day, and some have worked in the shop for more than five years, though three is supposed to be the maximum.

As Green America, the activist organization, pointed out in 2014 as part of its campaign to get Apple to ban the use of benzene and other toxic chemicals, the length of the workday at factories such as these – coupled with the fact that China’s legal limit for benzene concentration in a workplace is higher than that in the United States – means that Chinese workers may be exposed to at least three times the amount of benzene legally allowed in US workplaces. And that is based on the assumption that factories located in China are following the law.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that exposure to benzene occurs primarily through inhalation, and that “acute occupational exposure” can cause headache, dizziness and confusion, among other side effects. It also causes irritation to eyes and skin.

More disturbingly, numerous studies, cited by the WHO and American Cancer Society, have shown that exposure to benzene causes cancer in humans. In particular, it is known to cause leukemia, and in fact higher than normal rates of leukemia have been documented among those working in the Chinese and South Korean electronics industries. According to the WHO, exposure to the chemical also increases the risk that one will die of leukemia if one contracts the disease.

Workers in other departments at Lens Technology report injuries related to exposure to other chemicals. As reported by SACOM, those working in the glass-shaping department suffer from a lack of ventilation, and many speak with voices that have grown hoarse due to inhalation of toxic chemicals. Some see blood in their phlegm, despite wearing multiple safety masks while working. Workers also suffer from cracked skin, blisters on their hands and eroding fingernails as a result of inadequate protection from chemical exposure.

Commenting on the problems at the Lens Technology factories, Kwan Liang, project officer at SACOM, told Truthout, “In my opinion, all of those labor rights violations we found in the field are impacts of the absence of a representative trade union for workers. In Lens Technology, workers are not represented by their own trade union, making them unable to negotiate with the enterprise to improve their working conditions from root causes.”

Liang emphasized that large multinational corporations like Apple have a responsibility to improve working conditions at their suppliers, and that consumers have a responsibility to pressure them to do so.

A coalition of international activists has taken action to force the electronics industry to adopt more stringent standards for the use of toxic chemicals at sites of production. Truthout reported in March that a challenge was presented to the electronics industry by Pauline Overeem, international coordinator of Good Electronics. The challenge calls on leading global brands to eliminate production hazards and protect workers’ basic human rights. Over 400 individuals and 200 organizations from more than 40 countries have endorsed the challenge, demanding that the industry provide more transparency, eliminate hazardous chemicals, implement stronger protections for workers, include workers in management decisions, protect communities and the environment from harmful exposure, and provide compensation and remediation when harm is done.

Earlier in October, some progress was made at the fourth International Conference on Chemicals Management, which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from September 28 to October 2. Ted Smith, coordinator for International Campaign for Responsible Technology, who was present as an advocate at the conference, reported that some meaningful progress was made when the group adopted a resolution that includes provisions for awareness, education and advocacy for those working in the electronics supply chain, and for more responsible design and manufacture in general.

However, Smith stated that provisions for creating a cancer and birth defects registry linked to occupation and for biomonitoring programs at sites of manufacture were rejected by representatives from the United States, European Union, Japan and the electronics industry. Meanwhile, those that were adopted are not legally binding, so for the time being, regulation of this toxic industry remains dangerously lax.

Commenting on this latest report, Smith told Truthout, “SACOM’s new report on Lens Technology raises serious concerns about worker exposure to dangerous solvents used in their production factories. It is particularly alarming that the workers report that they are using and are being exposed to benzene, the most hazardous of all solvents.”

He added, “Last year, Apple banned the use of benzene at all of its first-tier assembly factories, but since Lens Technology is a ‘component manufacturer’ rather than a ‘final assembly’ factory, Apple’s ban does not seem to apply to them. Clearly, this new report demonstrates the need for Apple to apply its ban of benzene to Lens as well as all of its contractors, not just the final assembly plants. Apple should also insist that Lens and its other contractors replace all of their hazardous chemicals with safe substitutes and allow independent inspections to evaluate the working conditions.”

Recognizing the power that a major global corporation like Apple holds, Smith said, “This new report provides further dramatic evidence that Apple needs to fulfill its responsibility as the world’s leading technology company and assure a safe workplace at Lens and its many other contractors.”

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

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