iPhone manufacturers exposed to toxic chemicals for less than $3 an hour

Workers in an Apple factory in China are overworked and in constant danger from dangerous chemicals.
Workers in an Apple factory in China are overworked and in constant danger from dangerous chemicals. Photo credit: Getty

Workers spending 10 hours a day making iPhones are being exposed to noxious chemicals for as little as NZ$2.75 an hour, according to new reports.

Dangerous conditions at the Apple supplier Catcher Technology Co. factory in Suqian, China, have been detailed in a report from advocacy group China Labor Watch and in reporting from Bloomberg News.

There are not enough gloves, earplugs or glasses to protect workers from toxic coolant and particles of metal that are sprayed during the manufacturing process, according to an investigation carried out by China Labor Watch between October 2017 and January 2018.

"Excluding the workers who wear glasses, all other workers in the workshop operate machinery with no eye protection," reads the report.

It says machine operators come into direct contact with cutting fluid, which can irritate the skin.

"Despite workers receiving a pair of gloves every day, the gloves quickly absorb a lot of chemical oil and fluids, which would erode the plastic gloves worn inside."

The report says the erosion of the plastic gloves means workers' bare hands come into direct contact with the cutting fluid-soaked glove, which can lead to the skin "becoming irritated and peeling off".

Some workers told Bloomberg that they resorted to buying disposable kitchen gloves to protect their hands when there aren't enough company-provided rubber gloves to go around.

"After a few hours, the gloves swell and get soft, like they've been corroded. The fingers would be exposed," one employee said.

"My hands turned bloodless white after a day of work," another said.

China Labor Watch revealed that employees are given less than an hour of safety training.

"Workers are unaware of potential risk factors during the production process," it reads.

The report says Catcher's workers often come into contact with "toxic substances", but that the factory does not specify what the chemicals are nor the potential hazards they pose to employees' safety.

The report also says that the investigator who worked at the factory had to leave after four weeks because they developed breathing difficulties due to the plant's severe pollution.

The investigator spoke to a young woman who suffered a miscarriage while working at the factory, and suspected that the miscarriage was caused by "the workshop's oil smells, excess noise, standing for long periods of time without rest while working, among other factors". 

Employees at the factory are overworked: despite Catcher's work regulation pamphlet specifying an eight-hour day and five-day week, working hours tend to be 10-hour days, six days a week.

The report also identifies other workplace hazards, including excessively loud noise leading to hearing damage, insufficient hot water for employees' showers and oil on the factory floor creating a fall hazard.  

China Labor Watch's report included a photo of Catcher employees slumped over with exhaustion in the factory cafeteria. 

As well as Apple, Catcher also manufactures products for HP, IBM, Sony and other major technology companies.