John McCain and iPhone’s Sick Chinese Workers

The buzz today focuses on John McCain’s latest gaff: in his weekly Sunday show appearance with Christiane Amanpour yesterday, he claimed that iPhones and iPads are made in the US.

Host Christiane Amanpour spoke about her network’s project to empty a house of goods that are not made overseas.

McCain responded:

“I think it’s obviously a recognition of the reality and the trends, that cheaper, lower-cost labor products will usually prevail over products made in higher wage and income countries. I would also point out that if you emptied that house–if you had left a computer there or an iPad or an iPhone–those are built in the United States of America.”

So everybody’s been having a lot of fun laughing at the ignorance of the guy with the 10 houses again.

But in spite of the fact that, in an earlier segment, the Steelworkers’ Leo Gerard described safety and environmental problems with goods imported from China, I’ve seen no mention of the fact that the workers at one Chinese iPhone plant were all getting sick because an iPhone manufacturer, Wintek, switched to n-hexane rather than alcohol to make the manufacturing process seconds faster.

Last summer, workers began fainting on the job and dozens made their way to the hospital. The company started testing workers and found mass exposure: Wintek says 62 employees had confirmed nerve damage from inhalation exposure to n-hexane, which the company admits it used illegally for nearly a year in the production process. The illness, a form of peripheral neuropathy, came on so slowly that most didn’t know they were ill until it was serious. Workers say others were sickened, but left the factory without treatment.

Their troubles began in October 2008, when Wintek’s Suzhou factory introduced n-hexane to clean touch screens in the final stages of production. According to the local government, the company lacked necessary permits to handle the toxin, which dries more quickly than alcohol, shaving seconds from production time and speeding up the line.


Each worker was required to clean 1,000 screens per day, dipping cotton cloths into a tray of hexane, swabbing the glass screens carefully and moving on, according to workers interviewed by GlobalPost. Over the course of a 12-hour shift, workers said one person would go through six trays of n-hexane, protected only by latex gloves and simple cotton masks — nothing close to the equipment that Chinese safety standards require for handling the chemical.


So what do these workers, who earned about $220 a month and lost nearly a year of their lives to illness, think of customers who buy the products that made them sick?

“I haven’t really thought about it before,” says the woman in the pink pajamas, pausing to consider.

Then, she decides, and says in a steady voice: “It would be good for the people who use those phones so happily to consider the sacrifice we made.” [my emphasis]

This is not just about what an out-of-touch fool McCain is, or the importance of making something here in the US again. There are also real consequences for the people that make it easier for Apple to get rich off of the latest gadgets by manufacturing in China.

  1. Phoenix Woman says:

    Sometimes I half-wonder if the Chinese government was allowing the multinationals like Apple to exploit and poison their workers as a way of lowering the population to get it down to a level consistent with the land’s carrying capacity. If so, the gambit isn’t working that well as the land’s carrying capacity is also being devastated because of the industrial boom.

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    What’s missing in China is pretty obvious: effective labor unions. China will realize very soon that it can’t keep winning the low-cost labor racket, but an almost unfathomable number of Chinese citizens will have their lives ruined in the meantime.

    • bell says:

      what is also missing are corporations like ‘apple’ that show no corporate responsibility for these same requirements, as everything is about ‘money’ and next to nothing about ‘ethics’…

      • emptywheel says:

        And I’d go further. The whole manufacturing gig in China, in which you outsource to another company, allows the parent corporation to claim plausible deniability when stuff like this happens. It’s like money laundering, only with workers’ welfare at issue rather than looted money.

        • TobyWollin says:

          Another part of this is, IMHO, sort of personal. My first job out of grad school was as the business manager for a small wire form products manufacturer in a very small town nearby. One of our products (this was in 1978)was a vinyl coated wire caddy that people would hang over the shower head. One day I had to go find the manager of that department and wandered over to his shop where, as I approached, I could see a cloud of bright blue coming out of the overhead doors. I asked a worker what was going on. “They’re doing blue today – the fluidized bed has blue powder in it. Tomorrow it will be green.” I did not approach any closer but left a note with the worker to give to the manager,who came to my office later. I asked him what sort of safety equipment people were using in there – goggles? breathing equipment with filters? He laughed at me. “When it works, we use the fan, but it doesn’t work a lot.” I called up the maintenance guys to immediately get the fan motors fixed – they told me that they’d had that request on order with the company owners for several YEARS. I left that job after 6 months because I could not get things fixed or changed to help the people there. It really killed me that the owners of the company felt that they had the right to do anything they wanted to to the workers there – and I felt that NO ONE had the right to basically ruin the health of anyone who worked for them. A couple of years later, my father met the manager of that powder coating department in the hospital – when he was dying of lung cancer.
          As long as ‘squeeky clean’ and ‘kewl’ companies like Apple can hid behind third parties to get their work done, then workers will die for our ability to have cheap goods. This is wrong. It is wrong for us to go blithely along thinking it is our right to have cheap goods, no matter what happens to workers. And it is wrong for us to accept that companies can do this to workers – anywhere.

      • drweevil says:

        “Corporate responsibility”? Please consider that there is nothing at all inherent in a corporation that makes it responsible. The only thing that impacts what a corporation does is the bottom line. You need labor unions, government regulation, and tort laws to make sure that acting irresponsibly costs more than doing the right thing. Wouldn’t you know it, those are exactly the things Republicans and the US Chamber of Commerce want to get rid of so badly.

    • Knut says:

      I don’t think in this instance that McCain stands out from the generality of Senators and Congressmen. The only thing these guys actually know how to do is run for office. The grunt work of, you know, actually looking things up they leave to flunkies. As to their votes, they simply follow orders (and this includes most Dems as well). McCain’s ignorance stands out in this case because it is so egregious.

  3. onitgoes says:

    While I am truly sorry that Steve Jobs is so ill, one does ponder the laws of karma, as well as the laws of physics, as well as the golden rule.

    A prophet in the ME once said something like: as you so treat the least among you, so you treat me (which is just more of the same, as above).

    Most citizens in westernized nations don’t give a flying sh*t about any of this. Who *cares* about lousy Chinese workers and their tivial so-called “health” issues?? Not MY problem!… I’ve had this said to me (pretty much verbatim) by citizens of various political persuasions.

    It’s why we’re overloaded with useless crap like drug-addict Charlie Sheen, as a bright shiney object of distraction from what’s really going on (I so rarely watch tv/listen to the radio anymore but was at a party this weekend. The party-giver had their tv on – why, I don’t know – with sound off. It seemed like there was something with Charlie Sheen for *several hours* on *different stations.* I finally turned the tv off. WTF??? done deliberately).

    Thanks for the info. Unsurprised re McCain, who’s become a doofus’s doofus. Too bad almost no one else gives a sh*t about this.

    Make no mistake: if collective bargaining rights are taken away, expect similar here in the USA. THIS is exactly what the wealthy want… powerless citizens forced to work for a pittance in crappy & unhealthy conditions.

    • wallbanger says:

      Private Sector unions are fine. The problem is with the public sector unions, which siphon taxpayer dollars into a politcal party via mandatory union dues. This is unfair. And it’s also a direct assault on the middle class — who have to pay the higher taxes generated by public sector union benifits obtained through collective bargaining. This unjust transfer of money must end. I live in a very modest home, and my property taxes went up $200 per month last year. I could use that extra $50 per week to buy some luxury items, such as food and clothing. We haven’t gone on a vaction in five years, or bought a newer car in ten. Two of my neighbors are in forclosure. I know Democrats get misty-eyed and idealistic when they talk about the wonders of collective bargaining, but please remember these union contracts have a direct effect upon middle class people’s lives. It’s time to remind our elected officials that they work for the average citizen and taxpayer too — and not just the unions who bribe them. It looks like Scott Walker is going to win. Many people like me support him, and now I hope you understand why.

      • 4cdave says:

        Public sector unions are not an “assault on the middle class”. Union members ARE the middle class. And they’re taxpayers. Denying collective bargaining rights are the “assault on the middle class”.

        • someguy66 says:

          False, public union members are very small subset of the middle class. They are IN the middle class, but they are NOT the middle class. The amount they make comes directly from taxes, which the rest of the middle class pays.

          • 4cdave says:

            Your point being what, exactly? Union members are not the OTHER, they are US. Yes, they are paid via tax money. What is wrong with that, exactly? Work is work, and they need to be paid just like anyone else. The “rest” of the middle class does not pay those taxes, the entire population, including them, pays taxes.

      • rmacdonald says:

        How many corporate tax breaks did your state government hand out?

        How many property tax abatement’s did your local government give out for a few lousy paying jobs? Which will vanish when the tax abatment is up.

        How many infrastructure projects were built to lure some private corporation to build another strip mall or Walmart?

        It’s not the unions that are screwing the middle class it’s the Oligarchy running this country.

      • SueDe says:

        “The problem is with the public sector unions, which siphon taxpayer dollars into a politcal party via mandatory union dues.”

        This is absolutely untrue. In this country, unions are prohibited by law from using dues to pay for campaign contributions. Unions do make contributions to political campaigns, but these are from voluntary contributions that workers make to their union’s PAC. They are not from their union dues.

        I am sorry that your property taxes have risen and you have not had a raise or enjoyed a vacation in a few years, but this is not the fault of unionized public employees. It is the fault of the recession which was brought about by banks and hedge funds turning Wall Street into a casino with inadequate regulation and the deficit hawks who now refuse to allow the federal government to help the states survive through their deficits until the economy improves.

        The question you should be asking – and the fairness you should be demanding – is not “Why do public workers have the right to bargain for their wages and benefits?” but rather “Why don’t I have that right?” Moneyed interests and bought politicians are keeping you from receiving the wages you deserve, not other middle-class workers.

      • greenharper says:

        Hi wallbanger, I’m a former fed. The federal government does NOT pay federal workers’ union dues. Federal workers pay their own dues out of their salaries.

        I’m very sorry for your circumstances. Feds’ union dues did not, however, cause or exacerbate them them.

  4. puppethead says:

    First reaction: Apple has a hell of a lot more concern about overseas workers than other companies. It’s not an Apple problem, it’s a US corporate problem.

    Second reaction: This is what shipping jobs overseas is all about, finding places with cheap labor and lax regulations.

    It is about making stuff in this country. Because this country has a developed system of worker safety and non-exploitation (still plenty of work to do, though). It’s not just an “American jobs” thing, making stuff in this country provides one of the safer underlying work environments in the world.

    And John McCain’s cluelessness is exactly the problem. Our federal government has no coherence when it comes to manufacturing and trade. It’s all about shipping things to the lowest-cost workforces. When our senators don’t even know the difference between design and manufacturing we have some fundamental problems that underscore just how broken our economic policies are.

    • mafr says:

      take a gander at the conditions of work in India, for people dismantling unusable freighters.

      ship breaking wikipedia:

      ships (particularly older vessels) can contain many substances that are banned or considered dangerous in developed countries. Asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are typical examples. Asbestos was used heavily in ship construction until it was finally banned in most of the developed world in the mid 1980s. Currently, the costs associated with removing asbestos, along with the potentially expensive insurance and health risks, have meant that ship-breaking in most developed countries is no longer economically viable. Removing the metal for scrap can potentially cost more than the value of the scrap metal itself. In the developing world, however, shipyards can operate without the risk of personal injury lawsuits or workers’ health claims, meaning many of these shipyards may operate with high health risks. Protective equipment is sometimes absent or inadequate. Dangerous vapors and fumes from burning materials can be inhaled, and dusty asbestos-laden areas are commonplace.

  5. Ironcomments says:

    Cheap labor has been the engine that has kept this rapacious style of capitalism limping along for some time. An economic system solely based on continuos growth and not sustainability will doom humans forever into a cycle of continuos wars for resources and exploitation of the conquered.

  6. 4cdave says:

    McCain and the Aristocrats’ Party in general simply translate “made in America” to “American Aristocrats profit”. They simply do not care about manufacturing jobs, or the lower 98% of the population, they just want cheap labor.

      • jerryy says:

        It’s all PR bullshit.

        Perhaps. But it would have been vastly easier to not “find” these problems, much less report them and take heat for them.

        A long time ago, Greenpeace not so subtley pointed out problems in manufacturing. Apple rose to the challenge and soon moved to Greenpeace’s “best of” list. They then went further and became one of the few U.S. companies to hold these annual supplier reviews, publishing the results. (Certainly Union Carbide and Texaco never did.) As the ZDNet article shows, Apple will fire suppliers that do not end bad practices, keep in mind ZDNet is no fan of Apple, they do not give them good press out of fandom.

  7. pseudonymousinnc says:

    This is what shipping jobs overseas is all about, finding places with cheap labor and lax regulations.

    But at some point, it isn’t any more: it’s about the reality of where global manufacturing is now concentrated. This isn’t the same as building Ford Fiestas in Mexico to compete on price in a US market where buyers won’t pay European prices for a small car: the device manufacturers are near the component manufacturers for the same reason that the appliance manufacturers based themselves near the steel mills.

    • puppethead says:

      I agree with your point about being close to the source, especially when dealing with the expensive manufacturing facilities needed for electronics. But 20-30 years ago all of the computer component manufacturing was being done in the US, even with Japan cranking out their own inexpensive stuff. Along came NAFTA and everything has gone away from this country, because we have trade policies that encourage the dissolution of US manufacturing capabilities.

    • 4cdave says:

      Yes and no. Steel is a low-cost product that is expensive to ship. Electronic components are high-cost items that cost practically nothing to ship.

      It’s a simple social decision. If you want cheap goods and few manufacturing jobs, embrace free trade. If you want manufacturing jobs, erect tariffs and accept higher costs for manufactured goods.

      Free trade serves the interests of the Aristocrats. Protected markets serve the interests of the People.

  8. rmacdonald says:

    nothing close to the equipment that Chinese safety standards require for handling the chemical

    So they couldn’t even adhere to Chinese safety regulations. But hey don’t worry, if we just kill off some regulations, reduce corporate taxes, the jobs that have been shipped overseas will magically appear back here.

  9. pseudonymousinnc says:

    Along came NAFTA and everything has gone away from this country, because we have trade policies that encourage the dissolution of US manufacturing capabilities.

    You won’t find any argument from me on that. Point is, you can’t expect a single publicly-traded company — even a heavy hitter like Apple — to rebuild those capabilities from scratch.

    But 20-30 years ago all of the computer component manufacturing was being done in the US, even with Japan cranking out their own inexpensive stuff.

    I think you’re squeezing the timeline there a bit: Japanese consumer electronics were high-end and high-margin in the 1980s, having been associated with cheapness 20 years previously. And I’ll expand on the point that I made in a previous thread: the 20 years or so since component manufacture and device assembly really concentrated around Shenzen have made high-end Chinese manufacturers pretty damn good at what they do. Practice makes profit. (Though Foxconn’s actually moving its production inland to trim the wage bill.)

    If you want manufacturing jobs, erect tariffs and accept higher costs for manufactured goods.

    Again, no argument from me. Now sell that policy at the doors of Wal-Mart. When you have a spiral in which stagnant wages make cheap imported consumer goods attractive and American-made goods luxurious, which further stagnates wages, I don’t see any easy way to arrest it.