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Apple: 'What Chinese factories?'

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Chinese workers assembling Apple laptops and iPhones are being sickened by a particularly nasty industrial chemical, n-hexane, according to a report.

"I think they knew it was poisonous to human bodies, but if they had used another chemical our output would not have increased," one woman told a reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "By using n-hexane, it was much more efficient."

Another woman said: "At first the symptoms were pretty obvious. My hands were numb. I could hardly walk or run."

Both women have been hospitalised for over six months.

That ABC reporter had "snuck into" the charmingly named Number Five People's Hospital in Suzhou, a combination tourist destination and industrial center in Jiangsu province, just northwest of Shanghai.

The women told the reporter that they had been exposed to n-hexane while gluing and polishing logos on Apple laptops and iPhones in what the reporter characterized as "a very small, badly ventilated factory."

At least the women assumed that the Apple kit was legitimate and not counterfeit — and, according to the ABC report, Apple would not confirm that it sourced products from Chinese factories.

Which is, of course, absurd. Apple's laptops and iPhones are clearly labeled "Assembled in China." But such tight-lippedness is the Cupertinian way.

The ABC report is far from the first detailing worker abuse in Chinese factories that assemble Apple products — and specifically in Suzhou. In February, for example, a Wintek spokesman admitted that 62 workers in the company's United Win Suzhou plant had been sickened by exposure to n-hexane in the summer of 2009, according to a report by Global Post.

Soon after those reports — and a stike at the Suzhou plant — Wintek claimed that it had disontinued the use of n-hexane, which according to the US Department of Labor "is a narcotic agent; an irritant to the eyes, upper respiratory tract, and skin; and a neurotoxin" that can cause vertigo, nausea, blisters, motor weakness, thinning of the myelin sheath, blurred vision, restricted visual field, optic nerve atrophy, and other nastiness.

And such symptoms don't simply disappear when n-hexane is removed from the workplace. "Although recovery is expected to occur within a year," the Department of Labor contends, "clinical polyneuropathy has been reported in some cases to remain after 2 years."

Although the ABC report did not specifically name Wintek's United Win plant as the source of its interviewee's maladies, the duration of their hospital stay implies that they may be victims of that company's use of n-hexane.

Problems with Apple's Chinese suppliers aren't limited to Wintek. The massive Foxconn manufacturing complex in Shenzhen, for example, was described as a "prison" in a study of worker abuses leaked earlier this month that cited "corporal violence" along with a "highly-intensified workload, low payment, violent training, all at the cost of the workers' dignity" — all charges that Foxconn vigorously denies.

In response to the ABC report, a a Hong Kong–based Apple spokeswoman told Bloomberg: "We take such reports seriously and will look into it," pointing to Cupertino's Supplier Code of Conduct, which contends: "Apple is committed to ensuring that working conditions in Apple’s supply chain are safe, that workers are treated with respect and dignity, and that manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible."

Fine words, to be sure, but it's becoming increasingly clear that something is terribly wrong in Apple's manufacturing chain — and perhaps even the world's second-largest company doesn't have enough clout to rein in abuses.

Or perhaps Jobs & Co. aren't trying hard enough. But worry not — they'll "look into it." ®

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