The Smartphone Industry and Vulnerable Factory Workers

Carl Weinschenk
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Amidst the usual discussion of what smartphones can do, which operating systems and phones are thriving and which are struggling comes a discordant note: The ways in which these devices are made may be endangering workers’ health.

This is not the first time that such issues have emerged. Usually, however, it is on the other end: Discarded computer equipment often ends up in dumps in countries with developing economies. It is a dangerous situation. Caustic and carcinogenic materials leach into the soil and water and people combing the dumps to extract the valuable but hazardous materials can be harmed.

The latest area generating concern occurs during the manufacture of devices. According to eWeek, multiple reports have surfaced saying that workers at Samsung and Apple plants have developed aggressive forms of leukemia. The cause could be linked to chemicals to which these workers were exposed.


Bloomberg Business reported last month that two women in a Samsung factory in South Korea died of acute myeloid leukemia. The report says that the company denied the connection between the deaths and the girls’ job, which was to dip chips into a vat of presumably dangerous chemicals.

The problem is not isolated, according to eWeek and other sites, which report on a documentary entitled “Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics,” by Heather White and Lynn Zhang. The Sydney Morning Herald has an extensive report on the documentary. It says that the filmmakers claim that there are more than 100 victims in smartphone chip factories and that the companies have either disregarded the claims or, in the case of Samsung, actively worked to subvert them.

The root of the danger is exposure to the carcinogens benzene and trichloroethylene. The documentary claims that 52 workers in China contracted what is known as “occupational leukemia” in an iPhone plant.

PhoneDog’s Anna Scantlin used a report on the documentary as a jumping off point for an emotional review. She pointed out that a fairly simple replacement exists to at least one of the chemicals mentioned in the film:

Fortunately, there are alternatives to benzene. Toxicology experts estimate that replacing benzene with safer solvents would only cost around $1 extra per phone. 

Clearly, the other side of the story must be heard. Regardless of what they say, however, the issue of the safety of workers in other countries is one with which manufacturers and their customers must deal.

It is a tricky issue, though. For instance, should an American company demand that treatment of workers rise to the same level as it does here, or simply comply with the laws that are on the books in that country? What is the company’s responsibility if the legal opinion is merely that local law must be followed, and those laws are found to be inadequate?

The details are complex. But the bottom line is that Apple, Samsung and all the other manufacturers have a moral responsibility to protect the workers who make their products, no matter where they are.



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