By KIMAYA DE SILVA —
CLAREMONT, Calif. – Asked about his favorite story he has written, New York Times reporter David Barboza said that it is not his famous exposé of the corruption of family members of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Instead the stories that he felt most strongly about were on China’s labor conditions, which won him a second Pulitzer the same year.
“Many people would probably answer that for me and say they would think it would be the one on the prime minister’s wealth,” said Barboza, whose Pulitzer stories crowned his many years in China. In fact, his passion lies in the untold stories of China’s factory workers.
Barboza spoke to a journalism class at Claremont McKenna College on Tuesday about highlights from his close to 11 years of reporting from China during which he wrote more than 600 stories.
The “astounding” conditions of factories in the city of Shenzhen that produce toys, shirts, electronics and a multitude of other items have been of sustained interest to Barboza during the last few years. The assembly-line system of producing goods ranging from garments such as shirts and shoes to more complex electronics render working conditions intense and unhealthy.
“You can see a mile-long warehouse with people all stitching at the same time,” Barboza explained. “These are not factories where it’s mostly machinery or robots, these are human hands stitching and there’s a clock above them. … Often they have a quota; you are not paid by the hour. You are paid by how many pieces you make.”
Barboza wrote a series of stories on different factories in China, making connections between well-known products such as Apple and Samsung electronics with their production processes and their actual producers. Through his contributions to this series he gave readers insights into what goes into the production of their goods and how and why certain products produced in China are so cheap. This series, on the darker side of the global economy, won the 2013 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.
“I went to a Nike sneaker factory and to make one sneaker there were 150 steps to assemble that,” Barboza recalled. Each person on the assembly line had one specific task such as gluing a part of the shoe. The factories work like clockwork and each worker’s movements are recorded and timed in order to increase productivity.
Barboza described the many health hazards to which the workers were susceptible in those working conditions, including the overbearing smell of chemicals and glues.
“The factories can be pretty brutal as you can imagine. (There are) a lot of health problems in there,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of interesting stories … every kind of subject but I think factories, that’s my favorite.”
(Written by Kimaya de Silva, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Oct. 2, 2015)