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Apple supplier workers have been exposed to toxic chemicals, report finds

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Nearly a decade after initial reports about Apple suppliers appeared, work conditions are still devastatingly bad

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Demonstrators protest against working conditions at Apple suppliers in China, in Hong Kong in 2013, following a report from China Labor Watch that found workers’ rights were being violated in southern and eastern China.
Photo credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

An Apple supplier in China has once again been flagged for having poor factory working conditions by a report today from non-profit China Labor Watch, which Bloomberg added original reporting to. The report details working conditions at a Catcher Technology factory, which manufactures products for Apple in Suqian, Jiangsu province, six hours north of Shanghai.

Workers at Catcher make iPhone frames and components for MacBooks. On a typical day, workers may stand for up to 10 hours to cut and blast iPhone casings, according to the report. The workers are said to handle harmful chemicals daily without goggles or proper gloves to protect their hands or faces. Workers do wear paper face masks, but the oil they use to cut iPhone casings may still splash into their eyes and cause them to grow blood-shot over time, the report says. Workers are also described as wearing cotton gloves that get soaked in cutting fluid, which makes direct contact with their hands and leads to skin irritation.

During work, the noise of cutting and blasting iPhone casings is reported to reach 80 decibels or more, which can lead to “possible damage” after eight hours of exposure, according to IAC Acoustics, which makes noise control products. China Labor Watch also found that the factory ground is covered in oil and workers often slip and fall. Eating the cafeteria food also seems to have led to diarrhea in many cases.

Credit: China Labor Watch

By paying workers a base salary of $302.84 USD a month, the factory is able to keep profit margins higher. The monthly wage comes out to $1.38 an hour, as workers usually work 55 hours a week. The report notes that workers are paid on the 5th of every month, and that should they resign, management won’t pay out their remaining wages. At times, the factory might refuse to let a worker resign and insist that they keep working.

Although the factory policy says workers should be able to receive double their pay on Saturdays for overtime and get Sundays off, in reality, it doesn’t work like that, according to the report. Employees work Monday through Friday, with one of these days off that they must make up later on in the week. Saturdays and Sundays are used to make up the previous day off and workers don’t receive overtime pay for either of the days. The report calculates that this plan has kept workers from earning about $77.59 more every month in overtime pay.

In certain cases, some Chinese factory workers began to suffer from bad hearing, eye pain and poor vision, and other ailments, but the report says it was hard to prove a solid connection between the illnesses and the factory. The factory doesn’t offer insurance until a worker has worked there for three months at least, and if a worker resigns, they don’t undergo a post-job medical exam unless they pay for it out of pocket. The report noted an incident where a woman worker had a miscarriage and the investigator suspected it was due to work conditions, but was unable to prove the connection.

Many of these workers are recruited through hiring agencies in rural areas across China, according to Bloomberg. They may travel to the factory in the months ahead of the holiday rush for Apple products to earn wages that may be more profitable than available jobs closer to their homes. Without any effective unions, as noted by the report, or any other means of pushing back at management, factory workers just have to accept the conditions as is.

In light of many media reports on Apple suppliers’ working conditions, the company has published a supplier responsibility report every year since 2007 that summarizes findings from its site audits. But the 705 site audits conducted in 2016, for instance, cover only a portion of Apple’s massive supply chain.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment. Apple said in a statement to Bloomberg that it had found no evidence of violations of its code of conduct after sending a team to audit the factory and interviewing 150 people.