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Friday, May 14, 2010, 05:10 am PT (08:10 am ET)

Apple contractor Wintek sued by 44 employees over alleged poisoning

Dozens of Wintek workers claim in a new lawsuit that they were poisoned by a chemical called n-hexane while cleaning glass screens of Apple's iPhone in a Chinese factory.

A total 44 workers based in Suzhou, China, plan to sue the Taiwanese manufacturer, according to Stratfor Global Intelligence. The report, relayed by Barron's, states that at least 62 Wintek workers have been hospitalized since August of 2009 after exposure to N-hexane. The chemical reportedly can cause nerve damage and paralysis.

The workers claim that the factory manager in China forced the workers to use n-hexane instead of alcohol because the chemical dries faster and leaves fewer streaks on glass. That factory manager has since been fired.

The report noted that "lawsuits of any kind are uncommon in China." Typically, disputes are settled "quietly behind closed doors."

The issue was the subject of a violent strike at the Wintek plant earlier this year. In a demonstration in January, more than 2,000 workers in Suzhou destroyed their equipment and damaged vehicles at the plant in response to a number of deaths allegedly from overexposure to toxic chemicals. Protesters blocked off a road and threw rocks at police.

Days later, the strike was settled, and production of products from the plant went unaffected. Wintek offered bonuses to its employees, which was reportedly enough to get them back to work.

Like almost every electronics company, Apple works with overseas partners to create and assemble its devices. Last year, an audit of factories Apple contracts with in China showed that more than half were not paying valid overtime rates for those that qualified. In addition, 23 of the 83 surveyed factories weren't even paying their workers China's minimum wage.

Wintek, in particular, came under fire in 2009, as workers at the company took their case directly to Apple over what they saw as illegal and abusive working conditions. Members of the National Federation of Independent Trade Unions in Taiwan protested in front of Apple's Taipei offices last May, hoping the Mac maker would influence Wintek.

In March, it was alleged that a shortage of touchscreen panels for Apple's iPad led the Cupertino, Calif., company to contract with Wintek for new iPad screens. Since its launch on April 3, the iPad has been a popular item and has been consistently sold out in many of the company's retail stores.

One recent report claimed that Wintek will handle 40 percent of the touch panels in Apple's next-generation iPhone. The device is expected to be announced at the Worldwide Developers Conference, scheduled to begin June 7 at San Francisco's Moscone West.