It became clear in 2010 that things were not ok at Foxconn’s Shenzhen facility in rural China. The massive factory complex – really more of a manufacturing city – had suffered a series of unfortunate suicides as workers protested poor working conditions, long hours and small pay. These deaths sent the media into a brief frenzy over worker conditions in China before eventually dying down, as the news cycle tends to do. Why worker conditions in China – the world’s largest manufacturing center and one of the only major economies in the world that still allows child labor – had only become important in 2010 is another issue about the media, but suffice to say it was about time.
One of the major players in bringing attention to the “human price we are willing to pay for our technology” was Mike Daisey, a performer who created a one man show called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The show purports to be a dramatic retelling of Daisey’s experiences while traveling in China and talking to workers in numerous electronics manufacturing centers, detailing workers who suffered injuries, worked long hours, and received minimal pay. Daisey seeks to portray the dire situation of factory workers who make Apple products – the human cost of making iPads and iPhones.
His dramatization was effective. While not solely responsible for increased attention to factory conditions in China, Daisey was instrumental. His one man show was documented and expounded upon in a special episode of the radio show (and bastion of hipster culture) This American Life. That episode went on to be the most popular in the history of the long running radio show and spurred major interest in the social responsibility we have when we buy electronics. Wired Magazine ran a piece later that year investigating the conditions and lifestyle of Foxconn workers, though the article seemed more objective in its depiction. In January, The New York Times ran a long exposé on the conditions in factories where Apple products were made. Their story revealed instances of workers being poisoned by hazardous chemicals and dangerous conditions that lead to a disastrous explosion in May of last year. Clearly, Apple and Foxconn had become the focus of an important look at worker conditions in China.
There’s just one problem: Mike Daisey lied. Not wholesale, but last week it became clear that Daisey had exaggerated or fabricated large amounts of his supposed experiences in China. This includes meetings with injured workers that never actually happened or certain factual aspects of interviews were changed. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life was forced to retract their popular episode and devoted an entire subsequent episode to outlining the areas where Daisey was false. In part, The American Life was accepting of some blame. After all, they did portray a theatrical production as something of journalistic quality, which is implicitly not going to be objective.
So Daisey lied, at least in part. He fabricated some events and exaggerated more. Does that matter? Last week in The Washington Post, Joshua Topolsky, Editor-in-Chief of The Verge, took the stance that though Daisey lied, he did so to tell an important truth. Daisey simply took a Machiavellian approach to unearthing a very serious problem, right? If the ends justify the means, and more good comes from this than harm, then who cares? Sure, he embellished to sell a few more tickets, but what is that in the grand scheme of the microscope we now hold Chinese manufacturers under?
Except the microscope is not under Chinese manufacturers. The media has not seen this as the failures of a rapidly industrializing country or the improper acts of one manufacturer. They are blaming Apple. On the one hand it’s easy: Apple is the largest company in the world and now more than ever its products are all the rage. If the media wants to make a story like this come home to consumers, what better way than to point out that the most desirable products on earth are made in these conditions? But on the other, it’s simply unfair. It has made an incredible burden on Apple to right the wrongs of an entire country. It makes it seem as though Apple is directly responsible for and encourages worker abuse when that is anything but true.
Long before these latest outcries, Apple was publishing detailed supplier and manufacturing reports annually to track progress and maintain a level of responsibility regarding working conditions. As the Times piece points out, there have been many instances of suppliers simply not complying, but Apple has conducted numerous audits in the past decade in order to get manufacturers under control. Clearly that wasn’t enough and I will in no way attempt to defend Apple as the white knight in this sad tale. However, they’ve taken further measures. Apple recently joined the Fair Labor Association as its largest member yet and invited the organization to conduct their own assessments on conditions and see where Apple needs to improve. The company is incredibly conscientious of their workers.
You know who isn’t? Dell, HP, IBM, Nokia, Motorola, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Asus, Nintendo, Sony, Samsung and numerous other major technology companies that use Foxconn facilities for manufacturing. Why aren’t these companies being held equally accountable? It’s not convenient. A lot of people have Samsung TVs or Nokia phones but everyone and their mother knows what the iPad is. Apple is an easy target for all the blame here, when in reality all these companies share a responsibility. Even more to the point, these very real and very serious worker abuses are indicative of serious sociopolitical issues in China as a whole.
Before his death, Steve Jobs was invited to a roundtable of Silicon Valley’s greatest businessmen, entrepreneurs and engineers with President Obama. Some of you may remember the awkward pictures of Obama breaking bread with the likes of Jobs, Zuckerberg and Gates. At one point in the night President Obama turned to Jobs and asked him what it would take to get Apple manufacturing in the States again. Jobs said it simply couldn’t be done. China has a level of integration, capacity, and efficiency we can never hope to accomplish in America with our current wage system. We could never employ the workers while offering competitive wages for the US. China on the other hand has this amazing capacity for manufacturing (and making rapid changes in factories for last-minute modifications) because of their incredible manpower and investment in the manufacturing ecosystem.
This is why Apple is lauded for streamlining and perfecting their supply chain under the tenure of Tim Cook, because they leveraged the power of China’s infrastructure like no other company. Remember: Apple used to manufacture exclusively in the United States. Jobs built state-of-the-art factories in California. For a time it meant that Apple could deliver a better built device, but no longer as the Chinese rapidly improved from sweatshops to these 100,000+ manufacturing cities. Manufacturing domestically became a liability. Only when Apple completely rebuilt their manufacturing process from the ground up was the company able reemerge as a strong player in the computer industry. Apple is very much under the control of its suppliers, not the other way around. The efficiency and continued use of its supply chain is the only thing that keeps Apple competitive in terms of releasing products at competitive prices and quantities. Apple only has so much influence on Foxconn, but Foxconn has significant control over Apple.
The greater issue at hand is the institutional problems in industrial China. The 80s and 90s saw protests against brutal sweatshops in the fashion industry, the 2000s largely focused on dangerous mines following several disasters, and now it looks like the 2010s will focus on the human cost of our portable devices. Mike Daisey, in the end, may have brought a net good to the world. No one can or will ever be able to truly deny the abuses that workers suffer in factories like those of Shenzhen and Chengdu. But what should be denied is the lie that Apple, and Apple alone, encourages these kinds of practices. If people want to really unearth the problems with manufacturing in China, then they should be fair and objective. Not wielding Apple or Steve Job’s name like a punchline or using this as a way to knock those who buy Apple products. These workers deserve better than that.