The human costs of the iPad mini: chemical smells, unpaid overtime, constant work

As Apple prepares to start selling its new iPad mini, workers at a Chinese factory that manufactures the product have been enduring chemical fumes, 12-hour work shifts and alleged company mismanagement as they assemble the new device.

“The working conditions here are trash, there’s no need to bring it up,” said a 25-year-old worker surnamed Wu. “You can work for overtime for two days, but the company will only pay for one of them.”

The factory, run by RiTeng Computer Accessory Co., is located on the outskirts of Shanghai and mainly builds products for Apple, according to workers interviewed on Wednesday. Due to the increased production of Apple’s iPad products, some workers have seen their shifts reach 12 hours a day, with no rest on the weekends. The added hours mean better pay, often ranging between 3,000 yuan (US$480) to 4,000 yuan a month.

Michael Kan/IDGNS
Workers exit the RiTeng factory in Shanghai. The factory was the site of an explosion last year.

“The job is OK,” said a worker, surnamed He, who packages products. “I didn’t really have plans after I graduated school. I’m just doing this to make money.”

But the money doesn’t come easily. Along with the long shifts, workers complained of the noxious chemical fumes in the factory caused by the cutting fluid used, and worried about its health effects.

“The smell is indescribable,” said a 25-year-old machine operator surnamed Wang, who declined to give his full name. “It feels like there is smoke in the air.”

Management at the factory also unfairly reduces wages by misreporting the amount of overtime or personal leave logged, according to workers interviewed. In addition, management strictly enforces rules, such as prohibiting workers from bringing cell phones into the manufacturing facilities, or making sure that employees fully zip up their company jackets while on the job. Breaking rules or producing faulty products can mean a deduction to an employee’s salary, workers added.

Last December, the RiTeng factory came under the spotlight when an explosion at the facility sent 61 workers to the hospital. Victims of the explosion interviewed on Wednesday described injuries including broken bones that have been slow to heal, along with burns that initially left one worker’s face black with scars.

“I truly, truly regret working at the factory,” said one of the injured workers, who wished to withhold his name for fear of being punished by the company. “I had just started working at the factory. I had only been there for over a month.”

The injured workers’ jobs were to polish the screens for Apple’s iPad. Following the explosion, RiTeng has been paying the treatment and hospital fees for the remaining workers still injured. But some of the workers say they have yet to be fully compensated for their injuries, and noted that Apple never checked on their conditions.

On Tuesday, labor protection group Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior released a report criticizing Apple and RiTeng for alleged labor abuses at the factory. Apple and RiTeng could not be reached for comment.

While some workers complained of the conditions, others simply said the RiTeng factory was comparable to others, noting that it was easy to find a job at the facility. A 21-year-old worker, surnamed Jiang, said he’s been working the last three months straight without a day off in order to help assemble the new iPad mini.

“It’s alright,” Jiang said of the chemical fumes in the factory. “Sometimes they give us a mask.”

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