Would you give up your iPhone to save the bees?
Over 100 workers have been hospitalised in China for cleaning iPhone screens with a hazardous solvent
By Mark Gibbs | Network World US | Published: 16:09, 27 February 2012
"The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbour as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. We hate others when we hate ourselves. We are tolerant toward others when we tolerate ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves. We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves."
- Eric Hoffer (American author, 1902-1983)
I just received an email from the progressive organisation SumOfUs.org that contained a letter from two people, Guo Rui-Qiang and Jia Jing-Chuan, who worked in a factory in China run by a Taiwan company called Wintek.
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Wintek is a half billion dollar enterprise with over 44,000 employees and one of their lines of business is assembling touchscreens for the Apple iPhone. (For more details, read "ABC's Nightline goes behind scenes at controversial Chinese iPhone factories".)
The letter from Guo and Jia, sponsored by SumOfUs, is an appeal for public pressure to be put on Apple to address what I can only call a serious crime that was committed by Wintek's management and first reported last year.
The crime was having workers clean the screens with a solvent called n-hexane that is well-known to be hazardous without proper safety precautions. As a result, more than 100 workers have been hospitalised, in some cases for upwards of six months, with symptoms that include nerve damage (as in the cases of the letter's authors) and even paralysis.
Now, stay with me here because this may seem like a departure. Quite some time ago I wrote about a theorised connection between a very worrying phenomenon called "Colony Collapse Disorder" in apiaries and cell phones.
In case the world of bee-keeping hasn't overlapped with yours, Colony Collapse Disorder is a mysterious worldwide problem that is causing bees to disappear and no one knows why.
In my column I pondered the question, "If we find out that cellular phones are indeed the problem, will we stop using them?" My point was to ask how committed are we to our cell phones. The question wasn't about whether we could give up cell phones up but rather whether would we give them up even if it meant that we wiped out the bees.
Since I wrote that piece further research has more or less ruled out cell phones being the causative factor, but the global decimation of bee colonies has, sadly, continued.
So, what does this have to do with Chinese workers being poisoned by n-hexane on Apple's iPhone assembly line? Simple: You now know what's going on. If the bees were being wiped out by your cell phone, would you stop using it? I'm betting that for many people, the choice between bees and being able to text wouldn't be a hard one ... the cell phone would win.
But what of the choice between your cell phone and people? That shiny, cool device that you love represents a non-trivial health risk to many low paid foreign workers. If you know people are being harmed by the things you buy, what will it take for you to demand greater transparency and accountability and, crucially, what will you sacrifice to see those goals met?
Will you stop buying iPhones in protest? Will you sign the petition to demand that Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, makes certain that those injured workers are compensated? Or will you just shrug and fondle your cool gadget, giving as much thought to the low paid workers who made your cell phone at the cost of their health as some of you might have given the bees?