When No Voice and No Remedy Equals Poor Health

In a factory in Indonesia workers make the speaker unit for earphones and headphones for several leading brand companies.  Among the 4,200 workers, 95% are women, between 18 and 23 years old.  Some of them prepare the transparent film in the speaker unit, washing it in toluene. Toluene is an industrial solvent that may affect the central nervous system, eyes, skin, respiratory system, liver, and kidneys, depending on exposure. The danger to young women of childbearing age is especially acute as the toxin can cause birth defects.

Extensive research amassed over the past 40 years shows that workplace exposure to toluene can have acute short-term effects. Toluene vapours that the mother inhales can cause birth defects, low birth weight and biological or behavioural problems. Toluene can also harm the male or female reproductive system, trigger asthma, cause damage to the nervous system, and cause or increase the risk to cancer.

One woman who had been washing the transparent film of speaker units with toluene for seven years, told Electronics Watch:

“We inhale the toluene and feel dizzy.  We use masks, but the masks are the normal thin masks, even though they are supposed to get us the proper (gas) masks.  Some workers vomit.  Sometimes, when it is hot, we do not use a mask. There is no air conditioning, only a fan."

“Many workers suffer from respiratory illnesses and allergies. They have lung diseases and difficulty breathing. This is caused by the fumes of the toluene. The fumes are everywhere because of the open work area.”

These workers, like millions of other workers in the electronics industry, have no effective voice in the work place, and no access to remedy.  They cannot rely on local law enforcement to ensure compliance with health and safety standards. They cannot trust enforcement of codes of leading electronics brands, even though the codes call for strict compliance with health and safety standards.  Nor do they have the collective power in the workplace to call attention to health hazards and negotiate solutions with their employer. Complaints may not lead to improvements but to loss of job and livelihood, a risk workers can nowhere afford.  These workers choose their jobs, which allow them a roof over their heads and food for themselves and their families, and sacrifice their health because there is no access to remedy should they voice concerns.