Business, Finance & Economics

Silicon Sweatshops: The strange death of Li Liang


Editor’s note: This story is part of our series Silicon Sweatshops, an ongoing GlobalPost investigation into the supply chains that make some of your favorite electronic gadgets. In this installment, GlobalPost examined the fallout after a factory that supplies Apple and Nokia used the toxic solvent n-hexane in violation of local codes and without proper safety equipment. Though seven current and former workers said the chemical was used on Apple touch screens, Apple refused to comment.

SUZHOU, China — The only certainty about factory worker Li Liang’s death is that nobody will ever know for sure what killed him.

What is certain is that Li's death unleashed a wave of fear, anger and protest over chemical exposure tied to the complex supply chains that make some of the world's best-selling high tech gadgets.

In December, the 26-year-old engineer collapsed on the factory bus on his way to work and died later in a local hospital. Family friends say his father was discouraged from seeking an autopsy, talked out of bringing a case with the labor bureau and pressed to cremate his son’s body quickly. Coworkers were told he had a heart attack.

Li’s family is bound by contract not to talk about it. With his young body now just ashes, any evidence is gone.

On Dec. 25, a week after he died, Li’s father signed a contract with Wintek’s Chinese subsidiary. In it, the company agreed to give Li’s family 268,000 yuan ($39,260) in medical expenses and humanitarian aid, some of which came from coworker donations. In exchange, Li’s father agreed not to speak to the media and not to press the case forward. Payment was to be made after the body was cremated.

Li Liang’s death and his employer’s quick payment to the family while demanding they keep quiet are at the center of a controversy that has raged since he died, on the internet and amid a violent strike that shook the Wintek factory in January. Yet there is little indication that Li died of anything but a heart attack. Prolonged exposure to n-hexane — the solvent that landed dozens of Wintek workers in local hospitals —  is known to damage nerves to the point of paralysis, but is not so clearly linked to death.

In January, questions over his death helped ignite a firestorm over factory conditions that blew up into a violent strike at the factory, when 2,000 people walked off the job. China’s typically staid, state-run media took up the issue, with the English-language China Daily amid others reporting on Li Liang’s strange death and interviewing colleagues who blamed it on the chemical.

In a story republished by the official government newspaper, the China Daily quoted a worker as saying: “The truth has been hidden from public view. There are people dying from long-term exposure in the factory, but no one is paying attention to that.”

That Li died amid a spate of workers falling seriously ill from chemical poisoning on the job raises troubling questions for Li’s friends and coworkers. While the factory gave his family an unusually generous payout, the company denies his death is work-related. A Taiwan-based spokesman for Wintek, which owns the massive LCD screen factory where Li Liang worked, said that with a workforce of more than 10,000 people, it’s not extraordinary for one employee to die of natural causes in a year.

China labor law experts said the document — which was not given to GlobalPost by Li’s family — reads like a standard compensation contract given to families of men who die in coal-mine accidents. The amount is typical for a workplace death. This contract has a twist: it specifically says the company is not liable for his death.

It is not unusual for a Chinese company to compensate the family of a dead worker, nor is it unusual for a company to offer humanitarian aid. What are unusual are the language and circumstances of this particular agreement.

“If it’s not a work-related injury, what are they giving them compensation for?” asked Geoff Crothall, an editor of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, a labor rights group that monitors China.

The death came a very bad time for Wintek. Factory workers describe an atmosphere of fear and uncertainly when their colleagues began falling ill last year, after learning the chemical they handled for months was making them sick.

“I was shocked when I heard about his death and I immediately thought of the hexane,” said a former coworker and close friend of Li. “We knew it was dangerous, but we never really talked about it.”

So disputed are the facts of Li Liang’s death that friends, coworkers and bosses can’t agree on whether he ever handled the chemical that Wintek’s Suzhou subsidiary used illegally in production of touch screens. His friends say he didn’t work in the cleaning room, but he would have come into contact with the chemical daily.

There are a few facts not in dispute: Li was soft-spoken and came from a poor family of farmers two hours from Suzhou. He clearly engendered in his friends a fierce protectiveness. They believe he wasn’t sick, that he shouldn’t have died.

Two Beijing labor lawyers said it’s unusual for the company to demand that Li Liang’s father declare his death was unrelated to work. Just under basic Chinese labor law, if a worker falls ill on company property and dies within 48 hours, the death can be classified as a work-related and the company might be held responsible. The law and the facts, the attorney said, rather than the contract, should determine what killed the worker.

In Li Liang’s case, those essential facts may never be known.

Other stories in this latest installment:

A mystery illness in Suzhou

What's a worker worth?

Silicon Sweatshops: The series

Special Report: Silicon Sweatshops

Shattered dreams

Disposable workforce

The China connection

A promising model