Yi Yeting’s bones hurt. It feels, he says, like ants are eating him from the inside out. Yeting has leukaemia, caused by exposure to benzene, a carcinogen, while working at a container company. He has already been to hospital 28 times for chemotherapy treatments when we see him there once again, putting on a brave face as his wife and son visit.
Yi’s story is one of many in Complicit, a documentary by Heather White and Lynn Zhang that premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London recently. The film gives a voice to factory workers exposed to toxic chemicals while making smartphones and other electronics in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
Xiao Ya is another victim. One of hundreds of millions of Chinese “migrant workers” who left her rural home to seek a better life in the city, she came to Guangzhou as a teenager, entranced by a place she imagined as a paradise.
She began work on a smartphone production line, spending 15-hour shifts in a poorly ventilated space wiping phone screens to polish them. Xiao was poisoned by n-hexane, a solvent used as a cleaning agent that can cause nerve damage and paralysis. She and her sick co-workers didn’t know about the dangers of the chemicals they were using until they were hospitalised.
The filmmakers found subjects simply by walking into hospitals near the electronics factories. Others were directed to them by Yi, who is also an activist, campaigning against the use of benzene and n-hexane and helping sick workers get compensation to cover their medical care.
This is not easy, as it requires sick workers to have an official diagnosis of occupational disease – which companies are naturally loath to admit to. One worker says that when he sought an occupational disease diagnosis, company officials accompanied him to the health authorities, carrying a bag of money.
Often, says White, workers simply don’t know where to turn when they fall ill. They are young and don’t know their rights. “A lot of them are just bought bus tickets by their employer to ship them back to their village,” she says.
In a crucial scene in the film a woman – who did not want to appear on camera for fear of losing her job or medical insurance – reveals a rare piece of paperwork: a document from health authorities that explicitly states she has an occupational disease caused by exposure to benzene.
The sickness and struggle takes its toll. The young workers came to the city to improve their lot, and for many leaving is not an option. Shang Jiaojiao, poisoned by n-hexane like Xiao Ya, recalls that even when she found herself in hospital and unable to walk, she wouldn’t tell her mother. She sobs as she explains that she left home so as not to be a burden on her family, and now that’s exactly what she has become.
We see 26-year-old Ming Kunpeng, who has leukaemia after being exposed to benzene, sit silently on his hospital bed next to his father. Doesn’t he want to go home, asks his father. His grandmother would like to see him. Ming later kills himself, aged 27.
Meanwhile, those fighting for their rights face brutality from the Chinese system. Protestors are arrested and activist organisations have their offices raided. Yi’s group is forced to move location several times.
“Those who are the most vulnerable and in need of resources and support from society are those who are the targets of the crackdown the government is waging,” says White. “They’re basically doing the work for the corporations.”
This, she says, is why consumers need to step up. There has already been positive action, with Samsung announcing an $85 million compensation fund for workers with occupational illnesses including leukaemia and lymphoma. Apple, meanwhile, banned benzene and n-hexane “in all final assembly manufacturing processes” from 2014. But Complicit reveals that this is not enough.
“When you have global subcontracting and outsourcing with such arms-length relationships between suppliers, subcontractors and brands, it’s very easy for the brands to look the other way,” says White. “There’s no accountability and no legal liability for what’s happening with their workforce.”
Western consumers can use their voice, she says, to bolster campaigners’ efforts and force major brands to take responsibility. “I definitely think things can change, and the pressure needs to be sustained.”
At the end of the film, we learn that Xiao Ya is out of hospital after three years and has returned home. Yi has left his job for health reasons, after still more chemotherapy.
Yi’s dedication is a guiding thread through the film and acts as a call to arms to viewers. We see him advising other workers even in his hospital pyjamas, and giving speeches to international conferences remotely when he is barred from travel.
The filmmakers remind us of an Apple advertising slogan: “The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Complicit by Heather White and Lynn Zhang, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, London
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