Photo: Who pays the price?

The GoodElectronics Network’s latest report ‘Poisonous Pearl’ focuses on the experiences of (former) workers in the electronics industry in China who are victims of chemical poisoning. The health of all the workers in the report was damaged by exposure to hazardous chemicals such as benzene and n-hexane. All were working in large or small factories in the Pearl River Delta-region of China, an area well known as being a global hub for the production of consumer electronics (ICT). Manufacturers based in this region supply to international   companies such as Apple, Asus, Canon, Foxconn, Huawei, Philips, Samsung and Sony, amongst others.

The Poisonous Pearl

Occupational chemical poisoning in the electronics industry in the Pearl River Delta, People’s Republic of China

Key findings

  • Workers are poorly informed about the health risks of exposure to chemicals at work.
  • Workers lack adequate information, training and personal protective equipment in their work.
  • Employers do not support employees who become ill.

Featured case study

Zhu Yishu worked in a plant which manufactured ICT products principally for Japanese brands, such as Sony, Panasonic and Toshiba. As part of his job, he had contact with thinner, alcohol, solvent naphtha and other chemicals. In 2006 Zhu started experiencing pain in his back, bones and joints and was diagnosed as having acute leukaemia. In 2008 Zhu had a bone marrow transplant but suffered a relapse four years later. He now needs another transplant but the factory is refusing to pay for it. Zhu claims that his workplace was never inspected by clients and when officials from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) did come to inspect the plant, the manufacturer was notified before the visit and workers were told to conceal things.

The research

The research project was undertaken by two Hong Kong-based labour rights organisations – Labour Action China (LAC), and Labour Education and Service Network (LESN) – in collaboration with the Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). 59 workers filled out a detailed questionnaire and another 16 workers took part in in-depth interviews. Some workers were the only worker to become ill in their factory. Therefore pseudonyms have been used and the names of the factories withheld.

Corporate responses

Eleven of the 23 client companies named in this report responded to a draft version of this report. They stressed that they considered chemical poisoning a serious risk for workers but were not aware of concrete cases of chemical poisoning in their supply chains.

Alejandro Gonzalez, Coordinator of the GoodElectronics Network: “It is about time that the electronics industry takes serious steps to come to a life cycle approach to the use of toxic chemicals. GoodElectronics is calling upon the electronics industry to meet the ‘Chemical Challenge’ that it formulated jointly with the International Campaign for Responsible Technology.

Challenging the industry

Since January 2015, the GoodElectronics Network and the International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT) discuss a life cycle approach to the use of toxic chemicals. They issued a formal ‘Challenge to the global electronics industry’ on chemical usage. The ‘Challenge’ includes detailed recommendations for the industry on how it might address the issue.

Responsible chemicals management will be discussed at an event to be held in Santa Clara, California from 7-9 November, hosted by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), an industry coalition for electronics supply chain responsibility.

Download Report: The Poisonous Pearl. Occupational chemical poisoning in the electronics industry in the Pearl River Delta, People’s Republic of China.