I’m not sure if Steve Jobs was a fan of This American Life, the award-winning critically acclaimed radio program, but I bet that if he was still alive, he wouldn’t be too happy about last week’s show. It was dedicated to Mike Daisey’s show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” and his journey to China to learn more about the people who make all his beloved Apple products.
Mike Daisey describes himself as a lifelong Apple super fan. One day he saw some photos from a new iPhone, taken by workers at the factory where it was made and started wondering who makes his Apple gadgets. He decided to investigate and traveled to Shenzhen, where the main factory of Foxconn is located. Foxconn is the largest contract electronics manufacturer in the world with clients including Apple, HP and Microsoft. The manufacturer’s factories were also home to at least 12 workers suicides last year. Daisey wasn’t the first one to investigate what happens in Foxconn, yet his report is different and will probably trouble you more profoundly than written reports.
After trying without success to get access to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen through the regular channels, Daisey decided to investigate in a non-traditional way. He waited near the gates of the plant and when workers came out after finishing their shift, he just approached them and started asking questions. He was surprised when workers lined up to share stories (some harsh) about the working conditions inside. One troubling fact he noticed was that some of the workers were children as young as 13 or 14 years old.
Daisey didn’t just spend time at the gates of Foxconn’s plant. He visited couple of different factories disguised as an American businessman and he also met with members of illegal unions.
In his monologue, part of which was adapted for the radio, he describes what he saw and he heard and it isn’t pretty. He describes a reality of modern sweatshops, where workers work very long hours, under a lot of pressure, minimum care for their physical and mental health, and for a little money (apparently the wages in Foxconn aren’t much higher than the average wage in China).
This is not the first time that we’ve heard about human rights abuses in China. The Hong Kong based group, Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) published a couple of detailed reports on this topic last year, and the Foxconn suicides were reported extensively in the press. Yet Daisey’s testimony seems to be much more powerful. Maybe it’s because listening to a testimony has more impact than reading it, especially when it comes from such a good storyteller.
Another reason his story is so compelling is that it comes from the perspective of an Apple fan-boy: someone who loves his iPhones, iPads and other electronic gadgets, enjoys the fact that they’re so affordable, and don’t think too much about the places ‘this crap’ is coming from. Daisey, after all, admits he thought that robots make his Apple products.
Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, did a great job in trying to provide a broader context to Daisey’s monologue. First, his staff did fact checking to corroborate Daisey’s findings. They found that most of the important details were right. There were some questions about his testimony on underage workers, but ultimately the child labor issue was actually verified by Apple itself. Not that Apple agreed to come to the show and respond, but in their 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report states that “our audits of 127 facilities revealed ten Chinese factories that had hired workers under the age of 16 years, the minimum age for employment in China. Across nine of these facilities, a total of 49 workers were hired before reaching the legal age.”
Glass rightly made the point that Apple is making efforts to make things better – it has a supplier code of conduct, publishes progress reports, makes audits and addresses issues of non compliance when it identifies them. One of the problems, he added, is that Apple doesn’t name names. We have no idea where it found a problem and so we can’t really monitor them. What Apple is telling us, Daisey says, is to trust them, but without independent verification we can’t really do so.
I’m sure Daisey will be happy to hear that this is going to change – The Fair Labor Association (FLA) announced on Friday that Apple is now a participating member, making it the first technology company to earn that distinction. According to Apple Insider, by joining the FLA, Apple agrees to have the association independently assess facilities in its supply chain and report detailed findings on the association’s website. Apple also agrees to uphold the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct throughout its supply chains, and commit to the association’s Principles of Fair Labor and Responsible Sourcing.
Eventually this is not just about Apple, summarized Glass, but also about a more profound question: should we feel weird about all the products we consume that come from China and are manufactured in harsh working conditions? This is a question we all need to ask ourselves. Hopefully the question will lead to demanding that the companies we buy from to make sure the good people that make these gadgets are treated fairly, just like we would like others to treat us wherever we work.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.