July 27, 2012 11:48 am

Gas leak hits Apple’s Taiwanese supplier

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A gas leak at one of Apple’s suppliers injured five people working at a factory in east China, the latest example of the difficulty ensuring worker safety at global companies’ overseas supply chains.

The injuries happened at a waste treatment facility of a factory in Suzhou operated by a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Catcher Technology. The company manufactures MacBook casings, as well as casings for other group’s products, including HTC, the Taiwanese handset maker, and RIM, maker of the BlackBerry smartphone.

Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reported that a leakage of chlorine gas had killed one of the five workers.

“The accident happened at the waste disposal facility and is not directly related to any manufacturing process, factory, or materials,” Catcher said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the company said the five workers injured had been sent to a hospital for treatment but declined to comment on the reports that one of the workers had died.

Global companies have traditionally faced scrutiny over the safety conditions at their suppliers in developing countries, with Apple coming under criticism recently following a string of suicides at Foxconn, its biggest Asian supplier.

In response, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, partnered the Fair Labor Association, a US anti-sweatshop organisation, to audit its suppliers.

The audit, concluded earlier this year, found that workers faced safety risks and often worked excessive overtime. Apple pledged to raise wages at the plants and agreed to share with Foxconn the additional labour costs.

Ma Jun, a prominent Chinese environmentalist, said Apple had been noticeably more willing to co-operate with NGOs and environmental groups to monitor its suppliers since the audit.

Catcher’s shares plunged when news of the gas leak broke, but recovered to close nearly flat after the company clarified that, unlike the October incident, its manufacturing capacity would be largely unaffected.

It is not only among activists and consumers overseas that factory conditions have become an issue, but at home in China as well, where residents are increasingly aware of the environmental damage caused by manufacturing.

Catcher last autumn had to close two of its factories in Suzhou after neighbours complained that the plants were emitting a strong gas smell.

One Taipei analyst said: “The rising environmental concern of China residents has caused all the Apple suppliers to focus more on this.” Many companies that produce tech hardware, not just Apple’s suppliers, have “faced these kind of protests from residents.”

With additional reporting by Gwen Chen in Beijing

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