Heather White and the Human Costs of Electronics

She speaks fluent Chinese.

She knows first hand the supplier networks in China — the factories that supply your iPhone and iPad and other cell phones and digital devices.

And she is coming out with a film documenting how young workers in these factories are coming down with leukemia and dying in their twenties from exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace.

She has written about some of her findings — most recently with Michael Blanding in Wired magazine last year titled — How China is Screwing Over It’s Poisoned Factory Workers.

She is in the final stages of producing a documentary film titled — Who Pays the Price? The Human Costs of Electronics.

And she also worked with the BBC on a segment that ran in December 2014 titled – Apple’s Broken Promises.

What was the genesis of your documentary?

“In early 2013, I went over to China to do research in connection with my Harvard fellowship,” White told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “I had read in the late 1990s in a Chinese newspaper that China had just set up some rehabilitation centers and clinics to take care of teenagers who were falling into comas and becoming paralyzed from toxic chemicals they were being exposed to in factories. The factories were not paying the medical bills for these kids. And the government had to step in and establish clinics for their care. I wanted to find out the status of those clinics as the beginning of my research for this book I had been working on.”

“I decided to do random visits to rehab clinics and hospitals to see who was in the wards and whether they worked for global brands and were they being exposed to toxic chemicals. I was floored by what we found in the first week and a half — almost all of them came from some factory in the electronics industry serving U.S. and global brands and these workers in most cases were being watched with surveillance cameras. The hospital staff was on red alert if there was any sign that a journalist or foreigners were coming into a patient’s room to interview the patient.”

“I decided to focus most of my energy and resources in developing the story and understanding which brands were involved and what they knew about worker occupational disease and the leukemia that is becoming a serious problem in the supplier networks that are serving the majority of foreign companies that are sourcing their electronics from China.

In the trailer for your film, you interview young people in their twenties who believe that their leukemia was caused by their occupational exposures to benzene.

“I have spent the last three years interviewing workers who have actually gotten the occupational diagnosis from Chinese medical authorities. That means that the factories are being held legally liable and responsible for the illnesses. And that’s a huge distinction. It’s one thing when workers say — I think I got sick at work but I can’t prove it. It’s another thing to be able to go to a global brand, such as Apple, and say — your main supplier in China, the number one country where you are sourcing the iPhones and the iPads from — has a growing number of occupational diagnoses for leukemia and they are dying before the age of 25.”

How do we know that? And what’s the growing number?

“We don’t know what the number is because China doesn’t publish those statistics and because China is a totalitarian dictatorship. And they are not obligated to publish accurate numbers. The experts and the non profit organizations that work on occupational illness and disease around the world all claim in their publications that China is purposely underreporting the number of occupational illnesses in the factories that are supplying global brands for exports.”

Are we talking about thousands of young workers in China who have contracted occupational leukemia?

“Yes,” White says. “One person is poisoned every five hours – most of them from benzene.”

What is the response from the global brands like Apple?

“So far, silence.”

Do the workers approach Apple?

“They have and they have received no replies.”

There is no workers compensation, no tort system, where they can pursue their claims?

“Not against the global brands. They can pursue it against the factory where they work.”

Have they done that?

“They are discouraged from doing so. And the fact that they are often 19 or 20 years old, from villages 1,000 miles away in many cases, and they don’t have a support network and they don’t know what organizations might be available to help them – it works against their bringing a claim against the factories.”

But have any of them done that?

“Some of them have and some of them have gotten their medical costs covered and they have received a settlement from their factories. In the case of the individuals in my film, none of them have. In my research, getting a claim covered — that’s the exception.”

“Since starting the research on this film, over twelve non profits in this region of China where we are doing the interviews have been forcibly closed by the government.The people working in those NGOs have been evicted from their homes and apartments. And those NGOs have been trashed by the government. Literally, they come in and throw their computers into the street so that their office equipment is destroyed and they are no longer able to help these disabled workers and workers with leukemia. The government has been waging war against them since 2010.”

These are NGOs set up specifically to look at occupational health?

“Yes. Over 12 of them have been closed.”

How many have been allowed to stay open?

“To my knowledge, the only ones left are operating out of Hong Kong, where the Chinese government has not yet stepped in to shut them down because of the relative freedom to establish an NGO that people still enjoy in Hong Kong — not necessarily without surveillance or interference. But those NGOs are still allowed to operate. And those NGOs are the only resources available. They go into hospitals, pass out leaflets and say — you have rights, you are able to bring a claim against the factory, they should be paying your medical bills, if we can prove that your disease was caused by an occupational exposure that you had in the workplace. The factories are doing everything they can to keep the lid on this information and they are succeeding.”

What is the status of your movie?

“We are now in post production and are planning on having a rough cut ready for distributors in the early spring of this year. We already have 1.2 million views of the trailer and over 400 news articles have been written since we put the ten minute trailer up in the spring of 2014. We have a lot of original reporting in it. There are some pretty serious situations that are being documented in our film. Everything is dependent upon budgets. I started this project as research for my Harvard fellowship. And we decided we needed to make a documentary so that consumers of cell phones and gadgets would have some understanding about the people making these products in China and what types of risks and illnesses they are being exposed to. These are young people at the peak of their health and the prime of their lives and they are not recovering from the leukemia they are getting. They are not living for ten or twenty years like you often find in the west when people have leukemia. These people are dying within three or four years after the initial exposures. Part of it is because of the poor quality of health care they are receiving and the fact that they are losing a year or more of treatment time because they are battling the factories to get the occupational diagnosis. Employers are not making it easy for them. Most of these kids are from poor families in the countryside. They can’t afford to pay out of pocket for chemotherapy and the treatments they need and the hospital stays they have to endure.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Heather White, see 30 Corporate Crime Reporter 5(10), February 1, 2016, print edition only.]

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..