The documentary “Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics” follows the stories of young Chinese workers in factories making products for the world’s leading electronics brands.
Heather White and her team spent the past 18 months in China documenting the “chemical poisoning” among workers and the serious “injuries” workers received during the production of cell phones.
Teenage workers become “gravely ill” from contact with the carcinogenic chemical “benzene and n-hexane,” which have been widely used in the production of “smart phones and other electronics.”
The film, shot below the “radar” in China offers an unprecedented opportunity to meet the young people who are paying the “true cost” of cheap electronics.
The film documents “unacceptable” working conditions throughout “massive” electronics factories in China and the growing “global movement” calling for sweeping change.
The original “trailer” has been viewed by over a million people on YouTube, sparking a “media” campaign with articles in over 400 “newspapers” worldwide.
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.
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 solvents are really toxic.”
“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” with 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 coordinator 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 smart phones, 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.
To read a recent “press” article about our film go to Public Radio International.