China Labor Watch and the New York Times reported this past December 11th on another death at Pegatron’s Shanghai plant (an Apple Corporation contracted supplier of the new iPhone 5C) that employs 100,000 Chinese workers (1,3).
On October 9th Shi Zhaokun, a 15-year-old Chinese laborer, checked himself into a hospital and passed away shortly thereafter of pneumonia. Shi had been hired using his cousin’s identity card that stated he was 20 (1, 3). The legal working age in China is 16. Documents provided from his family show he had worked 79 hours in his first week, 77 in his second and 75 in his third, all in violation of Chinese law (and Apple’s supplier responsibility commitment) prohibiting more than 60 hour work weeks. In his only month at Pegatron Shi worked nearly 280 hours, often 12 hours a day, six days a week (2, 3).
Pegatron claims his death cannot be attributed to unhealthy working conditions within the plant, yet China Labor Watch reports that there have been at least four other similar deaths of young people at the Shanghai plant in recent months (1, 2). Moreover, Pegatron had declared the youth healthy in a pre-employment physical only a month before his passing making it unlikely that a precondition accounted for his pneumonia. Alternatively, the screening exam was faulty and a sick person was hired. Either way, something is amiss (1, 2).
Apple sent its own team of medical professionals to assess the situation and they agreed in a statement to Reuters that Shi died of pneumonia and that there was nothing in the factory that could have caused the illness (4). We concur that the contraction of pneumonia from any one physical ‘place’ or hazardous ‘material’ in the factory is unlikely, but find it unsettling that there’s been no mention of what the physical strain of a 70+ hour work week for many weeks does to a young person’s immune system. We believe this added strain, if not the cause of Shi’s illness, was likely a contributing factor to the development and severity of his illness.
If this seems unlikely to you, be aware that there is an emerging body of research demonstrating a relationship between work stress, long work hours and impaired health and immune system deterioration (5, 6). Combine this with over-crowded living conditions and possible exposure to someone with pneumonia – is it really a surprise that he got sick? No it’s not, but it is surprising that he died. How was it that Shi’s illness could have gone untreated? Are there many unreported cases of pneumonia in this factory? What does it say about the quality of the medical surveillance of these tens of thousands of working people that this 15-year-old could get sick and die virtually unnoticed?
Li Qiang, who runs China Labor Watch says, “Considering the sudden deaths of five people and the similar reason of the deaths, we believe there should be some relations between the tragedy and the working conditions in the factory,” (2). We concur.
1. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/11/technology/worker-deaths-raise-questions-at-an- apple-contractor-in-china.html?hpw&rref=business&_r=1& -
5. McEWEN, B. S. (1998), Stress, Adaptation, and Disease: Allostasis and Allostatic Load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 840: 33–44. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1998.tb09546.x
6. The Workplace and Cardiovascular Disease, Schnall et al, Hanley & Belfus, Inc. Occup Med 15(1), 2000 – http://unhealthywork.org/category/theworkplaceandcvd/