Will Apple give Chinese iPhone workers cancer? THE TRUTH

At least it mostly it makes them rich


Worstall on Wednesday Last weekend's headlines screamed that Chinese workers making Apple's iPhone 6 were developing cancer. Is Apple's greed for ever-greater profits literally killing its Middle Kingdom wage slaves?

No. Or as we might alternatively put it, nothing much to see here, move along folks.

For while leukaemia ain't a nice disease and the death of anyone, especially the young, is a tragedy, the connection between a number of deaths among a factory workforce from that dread disease and the chemicals that may or may not be used in that factory are not entirely obvious.

The news is brought to us by the Mail on Sunday:

Apple is investigating its supply chain after the discovery of a disturbing cluster of leukaemia deaths among young workers at a factory in China where millions of its iPhones are made, The Mail on Sunday has learnt.

At least 13 workers in their late teens and early 20s have been diagnosed with leukaemia after falling sick at the massive factory in Shenzhen since 2010. Five have died – and at ages when doctors say cases of the blood cancer are rare.

Families and a labour welfare group believe the leukaemia was caused by exposure to chemicals used to clean electrical panels and say many more workers could have been affected.

That labour welfare group is China Labor Watch: the people who brought us the news of the suicide clusters a few years back. You know, the numbers which proved that the rate of suicide inside the Foxconn factories was lower than the rate outside them, in China in general.

So I tend to look at their claims of outrageous treatment of Chinese workers with a slightly sceptical eye. I don't doubt at all that some Chinese workers are shittily treated (take those recent deaths at a GM supplier from a metal dust explosion – this is inexcusable, we know how to stop such explosions with proper ventilation) because China is still a country moving from low to middle income. Unpaid overtime, pension or social security payments not made; I'm sure all these things happen: yet for myself I concentrate on the direction of travel, which is that things are getting better there.

So that does leave some room to cast a critical eye on claims that are made. For even as things are getting better, campaigning organisations do need to keep the financial juices flowing and thus are inherently likely to, umm, possibly misinterpret outrages rather than provide us with an accurate diagnosis.

And that accurate diagnosis is actually in the Mail story:

… issue at the Shenzhen factory, where about two million iPhones a week are made by an army of 230,000 migrant workers from across China.

Anyone seeing the word “migrant” in a story about leukaemia needs to stop and think for a minute. For there's more than a smidgeon of evidence that certain cancers are viral in origin: childhood and youth leukaemia being particularly fingered for this. It was, for example, pinned down as the cause of the childhood cancer clusters seen around the Sellafield nuclear plant in old Blighty some time ago.

That, of course, was blamed upon radiation at first, while these in China are being pinned to inhalation of n-hexane and the like. Large amounts of either thing are bad for you but that still doesn't mean they're the cause.

If it had been radiation causing the Sellafield cluster, then both Aberdeen and Cornwall should have been hotbeds of the leukaemia given the natural background radiation in those places. They're not: so it didn't seem reasonable to say it was radiation at Sellafield either.

The answer turned out to be that migration of large numbers of people into formerly isolated areas brings with it an increase in childhood and youth leukaemia. Here's the Lancet paper on the point. The viral infection spreads through the population, some succumb to leukaemia and everyone else who survives the infection develops prophylactic protection against a later incidence of the disease.

The theory has been argued about since then, but the evidence continues to stack up in favour of this being the cause.

We could, of course, use this as an argument not to have vast numbers of migrants swirling around these Chinese factories. But the boost to the general living standard (Chinese manufacturing wages have gone from $1,000 a year to $6,000 a year as an average just since the year 2000) is such that, brutal and horrible though it sounds, those few who succumb to an infectious disease in the process should probably be regarded, even though each and every one is an individual tragedy, as insufficient reason to turn the clock back on the Chinese economy.

For there's really no way that those hundreds of millions of peasants rotting away in the countryside could be made so much richer without those migrations: and for the migrations to happen we need to keep buying the goods the migratory workers produce.

Mistreatment of labour that actually is an employer's fault should indeed be shouted about from the heavens: those dust explosions should just never happen because it's a well known problem and one that anyone in the industry should know to check – yea, even unto the suppliers of components.

But to blame Apple, or Foxconn, for a disease that we know can be brought on by the simple collection of migrants into one place seems a bit harsh.

That is, we need to distinguish between the stories of mis- and mal- treatment that come out of the various NGOs such as China Labor Watch. Some of them are righteous and just and we should treat them as such: others amount to little more than “capitalists, aren't they just awful?” ®

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