In China, there are more than 200 million people working in hazardous environments, many of whom are teenagers who leave home every year to find work that can help to relieve the financial burdens of their families.
Some travel very far from home, and in a country that produces more than half of the world's cell phones, many turn to work in electronic factories, making the Apple products that the rest of the world relies on.
The poor working conditions in these Chinese factories is the subject of a new documentary: "Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Cheap Electronics." The film follows the lives and deaths of workers who fall gravely ill from contact with carcinogenic chemicals like benzene, which was, until recently, used in the production of iPhones.
While the documentary is not yet complete, a nine-minute trailer (below) has already caught the attention of millions on YouTube and Facebook, and perhaps even at Apple Inc.
Earlier this year—whether in response to this trailer or the public outrage that's grown around this issue—Apple said it would begin banning the use of toxic chemicals in the assembly of iPhones and iPads.
Heather White is the director and producer of "Who Pays the Price?" and a human rights activist fighting for better treatment for some of the world's most vulnerable people. She says the film tells a deeper story about protecting workers' rights in China.
“When teenagers go into the factories they’re going in as unskilled workers,” she says. “They’re often initially tasked with basically just wiping cell phone screens—that’s what a lot of the workers that I interviewed said that they had been doing.”
These teen workers usually use cleaning fluids that consists of several different chemicals. They are normally unaware of the chemical makeup of these cleaning solutions, and receive no training on how to handle them.
“It’s only after they fall sick that they start to become suspicious about what the source of their illness might be,” says White. “They really have no idea that they’re working with a poison in most cases.”
In addition to carcinogenic chemicals like benzene, workers in Apple factories have also been exposed to chemicals like n-hexane, which can lead to nerve damage and even cause paralyzation.
“There’s a group of 39 girls that I’ve been interviewing that have been in the hospital for two years because they became paralyzed as a result of being exposed to n-hexane for about three months,” says White. “Benzene accumulates over a longer period of time. But if you get Leukemia [from it], you have a good chance of dying.”
Chemically speaking, benzene is similar to gasoline, and n-hexane is a neurotoxin. Up until Apple banned these products in August 2014, they were solely used for cleaning and had no other purpose in the company’s production cycle.
“All of the different experts and occupational health professionals that I’ve spoken with have said that [benzene is] absolutely not necessary and can be substituted out for other alternatives that are safer,” says White. “Of course, they might cost a little more, which is one of the reasons that many factories continue to use benzene.”
Many parents are concerned that their teens will take their own lives after they fall ill or are injured on the job.
“Almost everyone I spoke to, especially the young men, said that when they received the diagnosis, or that when they woke up from their anesthesia and discovered that their right hand was missing after being smashed in a machine, that they were planning on committing suicide,” says White.
One of the individuals that White follows in her upcoming film did commit suicide in January 2014 after receiving a terminal diagnosis. And this problem isn’t just isolated at Apple facilities, either.
“While I was [in China] I actually heard many cases in other factories where workers were committing suicide,” she says. “I think it’s a fairly widespread problem, either from the pressure or from finding out that they have a terminal diagnosis of something like Leukemia.”
In addition to carrying the burden of a terminal illness, White says many of these young factory workers must also bear the financial hardship of disease as well.
“When they get a diagnosis from the hospital, they’re also involved in a struggle for compensation from the factory,” she says. “The factory doesn’t want to pay for their medical expenses. So while they’re sick, they’re also fighting against the factory.”
Apple declined to be interviewed on camera for White’s documentary, but she says they are aware of the ongoing problems within their facilities. As mentioned previously, after the trailer for “Who Pays the Price?” hit the web, Apple announced that it would ban benzene and n-hexane.
“I sent them very specific information about the factories and the individuals who are involved,” she says.
Though thousands continue to be injured and fall ill, going forward, White says correcting this issue across Chinese factories begins with enforcement.
“The Chinese government has laws on the books and they’re very good laws,” she says. “The factories know what the laws are, the regulations are very clear and they choose to ignore them because they know that they’re not going to be penalties in most cases.”