In 2001, after cutbacks at the Inquirer, Tofani took a buyout. She and her physician husband moved to Utah, where she opened a store that sold Asian furniture. As an importer, she gained access to the inner workings of China’s factories. What she saw there eventually led her back into journalism. Her reporting on this series was funded by travel grants from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Dick Goldensohn Fund for International Reporting and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
From journalist to importer
When my husband and I moved to Utah, I decided to try something different. I opened a store in Salt Lake City that sold Chinese ethnic furniture. There were Chinese medicine chests with tiny drawers, and Emperors’ chairs with rounded arms that ended in carved dragon heads.
The store made me an importer, so I often traveled to China, where I had been a foreign correspondent for four years during the 90s for The Philadelphia Inquirer. As a businessperson, I saw a different side of Chinese factories than those I had been allowed to see as a foreign correspondent. Back then, I received the usual “foreign journalist as spy” treatment: I was escorted by half a dozen Chinese officials who had pre-screened the factories and pre-interviewed the workers and managers. But as a businessperson, on a new passport, I had relative freedom to choose the factories I wanted to see, unencumbered by government escorts.
My store opened in Salt Lake City’s Trolley Square Mall the day before Thanksgiving, 2003. “Elegant Asia,” the sign proclaimed in red script. The store was large, 1,500 square feet, with floor to ceiling windows at the front and one side. I filled it with furniture that I had purchased from a factory in Ningbo, China some months earlier. From my desk, I could see Pottery Barn Kids, The Gap, and Bath and Body Works across the halls. The presence of those stores gave me confidence. So what if I never had been in business before?
My customers bought the furniture. And they wanted more. About eight months after the store opened, I returned to China, to order more Chinese furniture. That trip changed me.
During that furniture buying expedition, I went to southern China, to the city of Dongguan, where numerous U.S. companies buy American and European style furniture—the furniture many Americans have in their homes. Inside the “reception room” of the Grand Style Furniture Factory, I sat on a couch with white doilies on the arms. Several sales managers and I sipped tea. We discussed prices, minimum orders, letters of credit and shipping times.
Finally, I asked to see the actual factory. A manager led me to a two-story warehouse-like building that emitted screeching sounds. The noise came from saws. So far, to my untrained eye, the factory looked like a nice one.
I had only been inside the factory for about 15 minutes. But it was enough. I thanked the sales manager. Once outside, I had trouble swallowing. My throat felt tight. I knew that Chinese oil-based paint contained lead. I began wondering about the workers: Didn’t they get lung cancer?
I also wondered about China: Didn’t it have worker safety regulations? Inside a taxi, I asked the driver to take me to another nearby factory. Already, I was beginning to lose interest in the original purpose of my trip. I had a new question I wanted to answer: Were the conditions in that factory unusual? Or typical?
Six furniture factories later, I could say this: The conditions seemed typical. Men were spraying paint and varnish—containing lead, benzene and toluene—without spray booths, ventilation systems, or proper masks. It was the beginning of the end of my business.
Less than one year later, I closed my store.
Digging for documents
Back home, I waited on customers, hired a new salesperson, arranged for furniture deliveries, and debated about whether to accept American Express cards. But it was hard for me to concentrate. I wanted to learn more about occupational diseases in Chinese factories. Was the furniture in my store causing illnesses among Chinese workers? Were Chinese workers getting fatal diseases while they made products for American companies and consumers?
At home on the computer, and in a nearby hospital library, I found lots of medical journal articles. Yes, workers in furniture factories in China were getting lung cancer. But there was more. They were also getting leukemia, lymphoma and myelodysplastic anemia, a precursor to leukemia. Those fatal diseases were not confined to the furniture industry; they were also rampant among workers who made shoes, sports equipment, luggage and toys. In addition, workers were getting silicosis, a fatal lung disease, while making car parts, granite counter tops, kitchen utensils and jewelry. They were getting renal failure while making batteries.
From one end of China to another, workers were routinely handling and breathing lead, cadmium, toluene, n-hexane, benzene, and mercury without the types of ventilation systems and protective equipment that American workers used.
The medical journal articles suggested that the numbers were staggering—that at least a hundred million workers were routinely exposed to such toxins every working day, every hour in virtually every industry. Later, in 2005, the Chinese Minister of Health estimated that 200 million of China’s 700 million workers were routinely exposed to carcinogens and other toxins, every day, six or seven days a week.
A ship arrived with more furniture for my store, an order I had placed before visiting the factories in Dongguan. At home I received an international DHL package from the factory in China: my shipping documents. The documents showed clearly the name and address of the factory where I had purchased the furniture. I would have to show these documents to U.S. Customs, with proof of identification, to claim my store’s furniture.
But to me the documents had new meaning: with such documents, I could trace the path of products from specific factories in China to U.S. businesses. If U.S. corporations knew that Chinese workers were routinely using carcinogens, unprotected, while they made products for America, then American businesses shared some blame for these fatal diseases among young workers. And, perhaps, so did U.S. consumers.
I was beginning to see the story’s shape and texture: I’d report on lots of different industries. I called U.S. Customs, explaining that I was currently a businessperson but had been a journalist for 25 years. “I’d like to write a story about trade with China,” I said, “about the specific paths of U.S. goods from China to America.” I wanted the import documents.
The spokesman refused; they contained proprietary data. For a while I thought I could file a FOIA request, but in the end I did not; a first amendment lawyer told me that proprietary data was exempt from FOIA.
So, here was a real challenge. I started thinking about how to overcome the obstacle. Reporter instincts took over. Meanwhile, everything connected with the store became an annoyance, a time-consuming, unimportant distraction. Payroll? Getting the lock repaired? Changing the light bulbs? Taking inventory? These tasks were not a priority. I delayed doing them. I had something more challenging to figure out: how to get customs documents for hundreds, or perhaps thousands of U.S. businesses.
In my hands I had exactly the type of shipping document I needed. But it was for my store only. The factory in China had a copy. So did American customs brokers–the people I paid, when I was in a hurry, so they could help clear my shipment through U.S. Customs.
I cannot be specific on how I obtained thousands of shipping documents. Suffice it to say that I had developed new sources, and new resources, as a result of having a business. I was careful always to explain that I had been a journalist, and my purpose now was to produce a story about U.S.-China trade. Gradually, eventually, I assembled the documents I needed.
Back to China
In January 2005, the sign in the “Elegant Asia” store window said, “Store Closing, everything 50%-75% off.” The mall manager told me it was against mall rules to have such a sign. Bad for business, she implied. I replaced it with a sign simply noting everything was 50% to 75% off. I told customers the truth: the store was closing, I was going back to journalism. “Where will you be working?” they asked. I said I didn’t know. By early February, the store was empty, I vacuumed it, and I gave my keys to the mall office. I hadn’t lost much money—if you didn’t count my year without pay. But I certainly didn’t make any money, either. I tried to chalk it up to an adventure.
There was one problem: although I had framed the story in my mind, I didn’t work for a newspaper anymore. Most newspapers I approached—including my former employer, The Philadelphia Inquirer–said they liked the stories, but they didn’t have the money or were uncomfortable giving the assignment to a reporter who wasn’t on staff. Between November 2006 and June 2007 I made four trips to China, each three or four weeks long. From shipping documents, I had made lists of factories in China that exported goods to America. But I knew it was impossible to have long conversations with workers in those factories; besides, most didn’t know yet that they were sick. So I asked non-government labor rights organizations in Hong Kong to introduce me to workers in China who had suffered fatal occupational diseases—such organizations as China Labour Bulletin, Asia Monitoring Resource Center and Labour Action Committee. Representatives of those organizations often visited China to inform workers of their rights and take notes on exploitation. They decided in November 2006 that it was too tense a time to introduce a foreign journalist to Chinese workers with fatal occupational diseases. Police surveillance and harassment of disgruntled workers had become obvious; the Hong Kong organizations were having their own problems maintaining contact with Chinese workers.
The women had spent lots of time in Chinese hospitals. So I asked if they knew other workers in hospitals. They did. They had patients’ cell phone numbers. I wrote down the names and numbers. There were six names on the list.
On my next trip, several months later, I phoned the workers from that list. Most were still in the Guangzhou Hospital for the Prevention and Treatment of Occupational Diseases. In Chinese hospitals, patients are free to go outside, to buy shampoo or perform tai chi in a park. I asked if they’d meet me outside the hospital. They did.
Those workers had fatal diseases from a variety of industries: making cell phone shells, car parts, granite countertops, jewelry and shoes. I interviewed each of them, one at a time. During later visits, they gave me their medical records. In the U.S., using shipping documents, I checked on the factories where they worked. Some exported to America. Some did not.
Accompanied by two of the sick workers, I visited other dying workers in the hospital and obtained their cell phone numbers. With my cell phone camera, I took photos. Just in time. Minutes later, security guards escorted me out.
At 9:20 p.m. we scurried up the hospital stairs, into a hospital room. I spent several hours there, interviewing the patients, uninterrupted. My interviews and photos that night became the core of the third story of the series, “Losing Life and Limb.”
From Hong Kong, I called the managers of the sick workers’ factories and asked about the reasons for specific workers’ fatal diseases or amputations. Sometimes, they blamed it on worker carelessness, even though the saws were very old and lacked safety guards. Other times, they said the worker must have acquired a fatal disease from another factory.
Back in the U.S., I called The Salt Lake Tribune, my new “hometown” paper. Nancy Conway, the editor, and Tom Baden, executive editor, read the series. A day later they said they’d publish it. I spent the next couple months reporting on the “Utah” angle, getting shipping documents for Utah and asking Utah businessmen why they used factories in China with old, unsafe equipment. I also asked for explanations from American businesses throughout the U.S. that had imported products causing occupational diseases and amputations among the Chinese workers I interviewed. Finally I interviewed some consumers of products that had caused fatal diseases in Chinese workers.
The series already has had impact: on Capitol Hill, legislators and lobbyists have written language into trade agreements that makes access to the U.S. market dependent on foreign countries permitting free trade unions—with the indirect idea that free trade unions can help insure health and safety worker protections. The principle was written by Democrats into the Colombia and South Korea trade agreements, which have not been voted on. China does not allow independent unions. Some legislators also have been considering legal ways to impose higher tariffs on China—despite U.S. agreements under the World Trade Organization—unless China enforces worker health and safety protections. Those tariffs, they argue, would help equalize the competitive advantage of the Chinese manufacturers—and their American contractors—who have not been willing to pay for basic worker protections.
As a result of reporting this story, I think Americans should find strong ways to stop supporting—even in an indirect way—this system that fails to protect Chinese workers from fatal diseases and amputations while they make our cheap products.
When I decided to become an importer, I believed the common wisdom prevailing in America: that American trade with China improved the wages and lives of Chinese factory workers and their families. The nice factories I had seen in China as a reporter during the 90s, under the tow of officials, seemed to support that premise. But the reality I observed as an importer, and later as a reporter interviewing young dying workers and those who employed them, made me arrive at a different conclusion: American trade with China has caused unspeakable suffering among millions of young factory workers, who are shocked to discover that their jobs making cheap goods for America are causing their deaths. Should Americans continue supporting such a system? American trade policy should address this reality.