Silicon Sweatshops: More Workers Fall Ill in China

Chemical poisoning is suspected in nine more cases in southern China.

Beijing – Months after on-the-job chemical poisoning left dozens of workers at an electronics factory in China with nerve damage, nine employees of a sister factory hundreds of miles away have fallen ill from chemical exposure, according to a labor group and sources in the plant.

A noticed posted inside the Masstop LCD plant in Dongguan, China, said the nine employees were sent to the hospital in early June, complaining of dizziness and vomiting. The notice said the ill workers were overexposed to industrial acetone, a common cleaning solvent, because the ventilation system was not working properly in their part of the plant. It said the employees were quickly released and back on the job. It then threatened legal action against workers who “spread rumors” about the incident.

The notice specifically said the chemical at fault was not n-hexane, the toxic solvent that felled workers last year making touch screens for Apple gadgets at United Win in Suzhou. Several of the Suzhou workers remain hospitalized nearly a year since they were first exposed to the chemical. GlobalPost reported extensively on the Suzhou poisonings, and earlier, on poor working conditions at Masstop.

Both factories are owned by Taiwan’s Wintek, a contract manufacturer which has come under fire for shoddy working conditions and hiring practices, and violation of labor regulations.

(See the GlobalPost investigative series Silicon Sweatshops for more).

Wintek, which makes components for Apple, Nokia and more of the world’s most popular tech companies, did not respond to information requests about the latest problems at its Dongguan factory.

Inside the plant, employees say rumors are rampant despite attempts from managers to quash all discussion of the incident. Many workers, they said, refuse to believe the illnesses were caused by a faulty ventilation system rather than a toxic chemical.

N-hexane, which was used by the factory in Suzhou illegally, is a known dangerous toxin if used without proper safety gear. Acetone, which the company says is responsible for the illnesses in Dongguan, is far less dangerous and requires only basic safety precautions.

“The factory has put up noticed warning us not to spread rumors and discussion is not allowed,” said a young worker who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. “We dare not to talk because we are afraid of punishment.”

Another Dongguan Masstop employee said details of the incident are murky.

“We don’t know what really happened,” she said. “The factory has cut off the news.”

Hong Kong-based labor rights group Students and Scholar Against Corporate Misbehavior has called on Wintek for a full accounting of the situation, and for reforms that will allow workers a voice in their safety.

“No matter whether n-hexane was used in the factory or not, it is incumbent on Wintek to ease the worry of the workers,” the group said in a statement. “After the incident, Wintek did not share the facts with workers immediately, but blamed the concerned workers who spread the reports. The overall situation also shows that workers do not have adequate knowledge about occupational health and safety.”

Debby Chan, project officer for SACOM, said that no matter what chemical the company was using, the incident underscores the need for workers to be allowed better communication with their bosses. Workers are afraid and uncertain right now.

“They’re worried because they’ve heard so many rumors,” said Chan. “The workers need an effective channel of communication with the factory and to be able to organize a democratically elected trade union.”

Chen said the latest incident further underscores the need for systemic reform in China’s manufacturing industries. Labor conditions have come under a harsh spotlight in recent months, following the spate of 11 suicides at Foxconn’s massive electronics plant and worker strikes at Honda factories and elsewhere.