Heather White ’76 Investigates Chinese Factories to Expose Dismal Labor Conditons

For six months, Heather White ’76 traveled around China interviewing thousands of teenaged electronics-factory workers and managers. Through these interviews, White heard stories of mistreatment, neglect and injustice.

White, founder of Verité and New Standards, two organizations that seek to improve global working conditions presented on labor rights issues in China, especially as they pertain to teenagers.

Before starting her own ventures, White worked with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the aim of addressing labor violations in overseas factories that produced American consumer brands. White said that China’s labor regulations, however, intrigued her the most.

In 1995, White started a non-profit organization called Verité, dedicated to investigating labor rights issues, despite the potential risks in her initiative.

“I ignored them and decided to take it on because the reality of the working conditions in the Chinese factories was hard to ignore,” said White.

“[Verité’s] mission was to ensure that people around the world work under safe, fair and legal conditions. When the organization was just getting started, I would go to companies and organizations and ask them if they would want [us to investigate the labor conditions of these places] by us on their behalf,” she said.

Now, not limited to just China, Verité has expanded their investigative work to 60 other countries.

Just one year after creating “Verité,” White stumbled upon an article in the “New York Times” about clinics being created near Hong Kong for the sole purpose of hospitalizing and providing care for teenagers who were seriously injured as a result of being exposed to toxic chemicals in the factories, primarily benzene.

“It is so tragic and heartbreaking to see these kids’ lives changed forever. There’s a lot of workers with serious injuries due to benzene poisoning, and in addition to that, they are involved in a struggle for compensation because factories are refusing to pay compensation to the teenagers who have been disabled for life and may never be able to work again,” said White.

White said that factories are also bribing hospitals and doctors to give false reports determining whether accidents occurred as a result of benzene poisoning.

“One patient that I interviewed had a difficult time to just even get the proper diagnosis for medical care… By the time he was diagnosed, he had lost a year of medical care and his illness was much more advanced,” she added.

Lacking the proper funding to conduct research, however, White’s intervention was stalled until 2013 when she was able to finally pursue her investigation on the injured Chinese teens in electronic factories, the sites of the most benzene poisoning cases.

White’s six-month trip to China allowed her to interview thousands of factory managers and workers, all of which would be compiled into the documentary “Who Pays the Price.”

One of such workers was Ming Kunpeng, a teenage-worker in a computer-chip factory who suffered from occupational benzene poisoning as a result of constant exposure to the poison.

“Six months after I met Ming, he committed suicide, and I still remember every moment of that day. He had struggled for three years with repercussions from his benzene poisoning and an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant. As a result, he suffered from depression. Even when he was deathly ill, his parents still had to fight [for] compensation from the factory to give him an occupational diagnosis and legal, correct paperwork to show that the factory was responsible for his benzene poisoning.”

Through this documentary, which was screened during the conference, White aimed to expose the injustices brought onto these workers in factories to one day stimulate change in labor-rights policy.

“Big companies such as Apple, Nokia and Samsung are starting to listen to these petitions. We definitely have roles as consumers. We all have the ability to influence the lives of these workers as consumers,” said White.