On Friday, NPR’s This American Life retracted its most popular episode ever (888,000 downloads): a stunning exposé of Apple’s employee abuses at Foxconn Technology, their supplier in Shenzen, China. The radio episode in question aired an excerpt from performance artist and monologuist Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man-show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In the show and in interviews with Ira Glass, Daisey claimed to have witnessed or heard firsthand reports of human rights abuses at Foxconn. But when Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz revealed that in fact several details in Daisey’s account were falsified, TAL retracted their show, airing a new interview with Daisey, who after a great deal of hedging, admitted to several lies. However, he justified his actions in his blog, “My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge.”
Until TAL aired this episode, most Americans had never heard of Foxconn or Shenzen, the place where an estimated 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics are created by over one million workers— not only for Apple but also for Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, I.B.M., Lenovo, Microsoft, Motorola, Netgear, Nintendo, Nokia and Samsung, Sharp, and Vizio, among others. Sadly, this only gave more ammunition to those who would like to bury some of the real truths that were brought to light by Mike Daisey and the many honest reporters who investigated this story over the years.
Here are the facts which remain well-documented:
- Over fifty percent of workers surveyed work over 60 hours per week. Some reports reveal that it is not uncommon for workers to work two twelve hour shifts back-to-back.
- 16 is the legal working age, although underage workers have been found by Apple inspectors and others. (Companies are known to falsify documents.)
- Workers live in cramped and barren dormitories housing 6-8 people per room, in company dorms that house 70,000 employees.
- Many workers experience leg pain, swelling, and serious repetitive stress injuries from standing or doing repetitive tasks, when they could easily be rotated or given more comfortable work-stations.
- 5. Apple has admitted to improper disposal of hazardous waste at many suppliers.
- Apple knowingly ignored hazardous aluminum dust pollution which ultimately led to two explosions killing four and injuring 77 employees.
- Apple’s own audits show that hundreds of employees were poisoned by n-Hexane in 2010 a chemical that causes nerve damage and paralysis. Apple claimed to have treated and monitored the patients, and fixed the ventilation at the plant in question. But the New York Times interviewed workers who were pressured to resign, take cash settlements and were never contacted about medical care. (These interviews prompted promises from Apple to do more.)
- 18 suicide attempts occurred at Foxconn over a two year period between 2008-2010 when workers “fell or jumped” from the building. One of these attempts occurred “…reportedly after losing an iPhone prototype.”
While Daisey should be taken to account for passing off theater (or a creative non-fiction monologue) as journalism, this does not diminish the fact that the abuses that are occurring at Foxconn and sweatshops globally should not be tolerated by American consumers.
Skeptics argue that Foxconn offers up good work for poor, uneducated, and unemployed Chinese citizens. David Pogue of the New York Times writes, “Apparently, even those conditions, so abhorrent to us, are actually better than these workers’ alternatives: backbreaking rural farm work…” Even Ira Glass began to wonder in his retraction, “Wait, should I feel bad about this?”