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Probe Sheds Light on Working Conditions in China

November 20, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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Reporter Loretta Tofani spent fourteen months in China researching working conditions in Chinese factories. Tofani details her investigation and the risks some Chinese workers face in the manufacturing sector.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Contaminated pet food, tainted seafood, and toxic toys, all part of a huge recall on Chinese imports in recent months, valued at billions of dollars.

AMERICAN CONSUMER: Now I will be looking at the labels to see if it is from China.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The recalls are raising concerns among U.S. consumers and in Congress and U.S. government regulatory agencies. They also have prompted crackdowns in China.

Last month, Chinese authorities announced the arrest of almost 800 people involved in the sale or production of tainted food, drugs, and agricultural products. In July, China executed the country’s chief of the food and drug administration, after he was found guilty of taking bribes and failing to supervise production properly.

And now questions have been raised about working conditions in manufacturing facilities and the dangers to Chinese workers themselves. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Loretta Tofani wrote a series of articles that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune chronicling the human cost of poor working conditions in the factories, ranging from airborne poisons inhaled by workers to primitive machines that sever limbs.

And with me now is freelance journalist Loretta Tofani. She spent more than a year working on her series “American Imports, Chinese Deaths.” Earlier in her career, she reported for the Washington Post and was based in Beijing for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Loretta Tofani, it’s good to have you with us. I want to set up a little background here. You have been a reporter for 25 years. You moved to Salt Lake City, decided to open an imported furniture store, started traveling to China. And what did you find?

LORETTA TOFANI, Journalist: I found that there were carcinogens being used by people, by the workers, in a really extravagant manner. People were spraying benzenes. There were people who had silicosis from making our metal goods.

And it would seem like it was in every industry. It was furniture. It was shoes, clothes, marble tiles, granite countertops. Virtually every industry went through this system, where workers were living and breathing in carcinogens or using machines that were unguarded and resulted in amputations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you started out as a business person. You were traveling to China as an importer. At some point, you shut down the business, but continued your reporting. How did you get access to these places?

LORETTA TOFANI: I continued getting access to these places while I was still on a business visa, but then I went back as a reporter with a grant, with a travel grant, and I got my way into hospitals, and I met workers who were dying of diseases resulting from making, from using carcinogens while they were making products for America.

Photos show dangerous machinery

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about some of these pictures. We're going to show our audience some pictures. I think you took some of these pictures. But one is a picture of what you call a plainer. Tell us the significance of that.

LORETTA TOFANI: That machine amputated the fingers of at least two men. I talked to both of them. Both of those men were making furniture -- couches, to be exact -- for export to Omaha, Nebraska, New York, and California, according to the import documents.

I spoke to the factory owner, and he blamed it on the worker, but the reality is that that machine does not have any guards on it, so that it's very easy to lose a finger, a hand, even an arm while you're sawing. And those guards are required under ILO conventions and also under Chinese law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's another picture of a man using a spray painter. Tell us about that.

LORETTA TOFANI: Yes, that man has no mask, and he is spraying oil-based paint containing lead. There was no ventilation in that factory, as would be required in, say, an American factory and is required, actually, under Chinese law, as well. And there's no spray booth, a booth that would control the fumes, so that other workers are also breathing in those fumes.

So many workers have come down with various forms of cancer as a result of spraying this paint with lead. So while we're worried about the lead on our toys, actually, workers are bathing in lead while they're making our products, not just toys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's a picture of a man sitting on what looks like a hospital bed with an oxygen tank over to the side.

LORETTA TOFANI: He's dying. He made charbroil stoves for export to the United States. His job was to place the outside of the stove into a machine that sanded the steel, and so tiny fragments of the metal would be in the air, and he breathed in the fragments. He had a mask, but it was not good enough.

And also, again, there was not ventilation, and there was a very high level of silica dust in the air, according to the inspection report that I obtained. He was just exhausted, and had trouble breathing, and went to the hospital, and was diagnosed with this fatal lung disease, silicosis.

And it's not just, you know, the manufacturer of the stove. It's many, many industries and many, many goods that we get across a wide variety of industries end up causing silicosis in Chinese workers, you know, from jewelry to car parts, virtually anything, metal, ceramics. There is a long, long list.

Response from U.S. businesses

JUDY WOODRUFF: Loretta, you've talked to people at a number of U.S. businesses that buy products made by workers like these. What are these U.S. businesspeople telling you?

LORETTA TOFANI: There is a range. The smaller businesses sometimes have never seen the factories. Some of them even just order by the Internet.

But larger businesses, generally the businessmen will go to the factories. Sometimes they seem aware of these conditions. But they say, "OK, China is maybe 40, 50 years behind where we are, and so of course their machines are not up to date. Of course they don't have the protective equipment we have. Yes, they don't have the ventilation. And, yes, when costs go up and they get all that stuff, then maybe it's time for Micronesia."

Meaning it's time to import, to change countries, and go to another country where the cost of labor is cheap, because they don't have to provide -- they don't have to provide all this safety equipment for workers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Loretta Tofani, freelance journalist who worked on this series on Chinese workers, we thank you very much for talking with us.

LORETTA TOFANI: Thank you.