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?”
But if you think back to your eighth grade history class you might remember Charles Dickens, the Industrial Revolution, and the reason why child labor was finally banned in the US and labor laws were instituted. The Federal Wage and Hour Act was passed by the Supreme Court in 1941. Up until then women, men, and young children were forced to work appalling hours under inhumane conditions and state labor laws were widely ignored by most factories, farms and employers.
Photographer Lewis Hine was one of many people who fought to end the abuses being perpetrated on working men, women, and children. Like Daisey, his art was able to humanize a situation that many justified as the necessary price of advancement. Photos, like good stories, have the power to punch people in the gut in a way that facts, numbers and statistics fail to. The difference between Hine and Daisey is that Hine did not blur the truth; he trusted his images to speak for themselves.
Daisey used classic tools of great storytellers: exaggeration, time compression, and composite characters to create a powerful story “based on” truths. Several writers have gotten in trouble for falsifying memoirs—most notably James Frey who got publicly scolded by Oprah for fabricating major details in his best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces. Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction explains, “There are lines—real demarcation points between fiction, which is or can be mostly imagination; traditional nonfiction (journalism and scholarship), which is mostly information; and creative nonfiction, which presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.” Daisey, sadly forgot the latter.
Daisey made a serious mistake, but let’s not allow one man’s mistake to diminish the fact that he also illuminated some real injustices. As filmmaker Michael Moore said (prior to the scandal), “Mike Daisey, in addition to providing us with a riveting, hilarious, but ultimately gut-wrenching piece of theater, may actually end up being singularly responsible for bringing Goliath to its knees.” Apple has made some changes to its monitoring of labor abuses since the spotlight was turned on them. In 2005, it created a code of conduct suppliers. Last month, it became the first electronics company to join the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit labor monitoring group, and Foxconn said it would raise salaries by 16-20% and reduce working hours.
According to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, Apple could still make a profit if you raised the price of the iPhone by $65 and “…from a labor perspective you could build the iPhone in the United States for just ten extra dollars a phone if you’re paying American wages.” Now, we can either focus on what Daisey did wrong, or we can refocus our attention on the more serious issue here: how can we eliminate labor abuse abroad if we insist on always having the latest technology as quickly and as cheaply as possible?
What is a green citizen to do?
- Sign a petition to stop labor abuses. Change.org and Sum of Us both have online petitions.
- Change your phone service to CREDO mobile where 1% percent of profits from your phone bill will go toward supporting social justice, environmental, civil rights and human rights causes and you get a voting say in what this company does!
- Boycott your local Apple Retailer
- Educate your friends. Share this story on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.