Overseas Labor Abuses Prompt Business Shutdown

Host Michel Martin talks to Loretta Tofani, who closed her furniture store after discovering poor working conditions at the Chinese factories that supplied her business. She talks about how she made her decision, and about the factory building collapse in Bangladesh.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we are going to introduce you to a rising star in music who grew up singing gospel in church. But now, she's making her mark not in R&B, not in hip-hop - no. She sings in an Asian language called Hmong, and you'll meet her in just a minute.

But first, we want to talk more about some of the issues raised by the collapse of a factory building in Bangladesh late last month. At least 400 people are known to have died there. But the issue also has international implications because some of those factories make clothes for Western companies. And so now critics are asking whether Western shoppers should consider the conditions that produce the cheap, foreign-made items that they buy.

Loretta Tofani has actually thought a lot about those ethical questions even before this latest tragedy. She actually closed her own, Chinese furniture store after she learned about the conditions in the factories that supplied her goods. She went on to do a series of investigative reports about factories in China. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and she is with us now.

Loretta, thank you so much for joining us once again.

LORETTA TOFANI: Oh, you're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: We actually spoke with you before - in 2007, when there was a massive recall of lead-tainted toys that came from China. We were talking about the toys, but also the dangerous conditions in the factories that you were most familiar with. So I just wanted to ask you, when you heard about this collapse of this building in Bangladesh - I know it's a different country, and so forth - but I just wanted to ask, you know, what was your reaction?

TOFANI: I thought that the collapse of the building in Bangladesh was actually, a very kind of familiar scenario to me. The inspector in Bangladesh had seen that there were grave problems with the building, had advised people to get out, and had told the officials that it should be closed. But in fact, nothing was done. And this same kind of thing happens throughout Asia. Certainly, it happened in China.

MARTIN: Just to kind of encapsulate the story; that you had been a reporter in China for...

TOFANI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...a number of years when you relocated back to the states. You worked - you happened to be living in an area where you weren't able to practice your profession in the way that you had. So you decided to open a furniture store. And then you discovered - what, that you had a lot more access as a business owner than you ever had as a journalist, right? So wouldn't you - pick up the story there.

TOFANI: Yeah. I had worked in China as a journalist for four years and, you know, every time I'd visit a factory, I'd be accompanied by six officials. And they would be very careful to whisk me in and whisk me out. Not too many questions, please. And the place, of course, would be cleaned up before I got there.

But as a business owner, I had amazing access. And I also saw amazing things - workers who had extremely dangerous conditions, breathing in oil-based paint with benzene; or, you know, making jewelry or charcoal grills with metal shards that would give them silicosis, and not the proper masks or - you know, shielding devices that, of course, would be used in the United States. It made me feel that it was really immoral for Americans to be importing these things at the cost of the lives of the Chinese workers.

MARTIN: I think some might ask, why do you feel it's the responsibility of consumers outside the country to protect the interests of the workers of these countries, which are so far away? I think, you know, people might say, well, why? Isn't it the job of their government to protect their citizens who presumably, are right there and have their interests at heart?

TOFANI: Their government usually does not have the workers' interests at heart, although they will say they do. Their interest is to take in as much money as possible, and to really help the country's economy. And also, I think the global trade system, in general, fosters this kind of race to the bottom. You know, whichever country can produce a product in the cheapest way, wins the most business. So if you're going to do that, the best way to do it is to not follow the regulations. Don't provide them with the proper masks, the proper equipment that will shield them from getting fatal diseases.

MARTIN: How would you recommend that people who care about this issue proceed here?

TOFANI: I am 60 years old now, so I don't go on many shopping trips. And I try to use what I have. I've had other friends say that even though they are reasonably well off, they buy things that are secondhand because there is less of a taint after things have been re-circulated. But I think really, what it will take to correct the system is legislation that maybe makes it illegal for international companies that have headquarters in the United States, to use subcontractors. And I think there should be much more monitoring, also, by American officials - over and above the corporate responsibility that the companies say they have.

And I think maybe, also, a rethinking at the World Trade Organization because it's an economic gain there. Whoever can produce the most goods for the cheapest price, is the winner. And you know, maybe worker safety - in terms of buildings, the materials they're using, the toxins they're using - maybe that needs to be factored into the calculus because right now, it isn't.

MARTIN: Do you have any regrets about closing your store?

TOFANI: Never. That was the best thing I ever did. (LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Because?

TOFANI: Yeah. No. I was really - I was very glad when I sold because closing the store, I didn't have to think anymore about the people who I saw making the products in the store. Or I did think about them, but I thought about them in a different way. I was able to go back, do interviews - not only of the people who were making the furniture, but people who were making batteries, people who were making jewelry; and I was able to tell that story and maybe somewhat absolve my conscience.

MARTIN: Loretta Tofani is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. We caught up with her from Boise State Public Radio in Boise, Idaho; which is where she lives now.Loretta, thanks so much for joining us.

TOFANI: Oh, you're welcome, Michel.

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