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Toxic Work: The Human Price of Your Cellphone

Documentarian reveals the brutal working conditions within China's cellphone industry


Toxic Work: The Human Price of Your Cellphone

Documentarian reveals the brutal working conditions within China's cellphone industry


A middle-aged man in a business suit puts on a hidden camera and walks into an electronics factory. He’s pretending to be a business representative and is talking with a factory’s administrator, who describes the often chaotic state of affairs along the Pearl Delta—an area of Southern China so named for the string of factories and urban hubs that surround the Pearl River.

In a country that produces over half of the billions of cellphones currently owned worldwide, the disorganized status of the electronics industry seems to have risen hand in hand with the production of mobile devices.

The new documentary, “Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics,” traces the rise of cellphone production in China, chronicling the hazardous working conditions surrounding the manufacture of smartphones.

While the film features its share of undercover sleuthing (camera crews are rarely allowed behind factory walls), the documentary focuses on the stories of workers, the majority of whom are teenagers suffering from illnesses caused by contact with carcinogenic chemicals.

Heather White, the film’s director and producer as well as human rights activist, says the film reveals the relatively unknown pitfalls of the smartphone industry.

“There has been almost no media coverage, no articles on what’s happening,” she told TWOC. “I read an article written in 1997 about occupational disease clinics filled with teenagers and I wanted to see if what I read was true.”

Collaborating with several Hong Kong based Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that helped secure compensation for injured factory workers, White headed into the Pearl Delta and began walking up and down hospital halls, chatting with patients who suffered from factory related illnesses or injuries.

“The workers I talked with were so young,” White says. “One person I met was just on winter break from school and thought he’d make some extra money. After one day in the factory, his hand was crushed in a machine.”

Another fifteen-year-old patient, White recalls, lost his hand to a machine malfunction after just three days in the factory.

White found that, since she began visiting factories as part of her work with corporate social responsibility organizations some ten or so years earlier, the conditions within factories had deteriorated. In an effort to save money and time, factories now elect to cut down on maintenance costs and remove safety equipment. The result: finicky machines that move quickly rather than safely and might crush or cut a worker’s hand at the unlucky push of a button.

Young workers are at particular risk for getting assigned the sorts of hazardous jobs that need little experience to complete—most teenage workers White talked to either operated machinery or wiped down cellphones with cleaning solvents. “The factories have the youngest and least skilled workers in the factory doing these nontechnical tasks, but the chemicals [in solvents] are really toxic.”


A camerawoman films as a factory worker waits for treatment in a Pearl Delta Hospital. The worker recently passed away after suffering from benzene poisoning.

Benzene, one of the more popular chemicals found in cleaning products, is a carcinogenic chemical that can cause reproductive abnormalities and leukemia. In her research, White found that while benzene can be easily substituted out for other safer alternatives, the alternatives are often more expensive.

N-hexane, another common cleaning chemical, evaporates around three times faster than conventional solvents. Workers can dry more phones in a workday than if they were to use a less powerful cleaner, despite the fact that contact to the chemical has been known to cause nerve damage and even paralysis.

As part of her work on the documentary, White has been interviewing a group of 39 girls who, after being exposed to n-hexane for three months, are all now paralyzed. Most of the girls, and the majority of workers White interviewed, had no idea that the cleaning solutions contained hazardous chemicals.

Kevin Slaten, program co-ordinator at China Labor Watch, said in an interview with the Guardian, “When workers come to these factories they deal with harmful chemicals every day and they need to be educated about them. Unfortunately training in most factories is not adequate with some receiving as little as 10 minutes pre-job rather than the 24 hours legal requirement.”

With 12 million workers in the electronics sector in China (that’s around the number of people who live in the state of Illinois), and an ever growing demand for smartphones, White believes that there needs to be a greater consumer focus on ethically made mobile devices.

White points out that consumer attitudes can have a significant impact.“Apple, Samsung, all these brands listen to their customers. Consumers are in a position where they can request that their cellphone companies adopt stricter standards and comply with laws.”

Earlier this year, in response to the recent media attention on hazardous working conditions, Apple said it would begin banning the use of chemicals like benzene in the assembly of iPhones and iPads.

White cautions, however, that Apple has so far only banned benzene use in its first-tier suppliers. Subcontractors can still use the dangerous solvent—meaning two-thirds of Apple’s suppliers have remained unaffected by the company’s ban.

“Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics” aims to continue bringing attention to the issue of worker’s rights in hopes of further persuading cellphone companies to provide safe and healthy labor conditions.

The film, which recently surpassed its funding goal of 218,000 RMB on the crowdsource site indiegogo, is currently moving into its post-production phase. A nine-minute trailer for the film is available on youku and its youtube post has already garnered over a million views.


White (second to the right) sits with Zhang Tingzhen and his sisters. Zhang lost half his brain after surviving an electric shock and fall at a factory that produces Apple products.


Photos courtesy of Heather White. Master image via Pheonix Weekly.