Apple’s Outrageous Worker Abuse? Yep–It’s Mostly Fake.
I’ll get to the new iPad review soon, but before that, I just wanted to say a few things about Apple and Foxconn.
It turns out, according to new reports today, that most of the outrageous abuses people have believed about Apple have been largely fabricated.
Now, over the past several months, there has been a great deal of attention focused on Foxconn, a contractor for many electronics firms, including Apple. It started with what was reported to be a cluster of suicides a few years ago. People were outraged; surely this was a result of oppressive conditions at the plant, an impression fueled by the general image of Asian factories being inhumane sweatshops with workplace conditions right out of the industrial-revolution era.
Added to that was a case of “Apple Outrage,” generally resentment from detractors of Apple, who, annoyed by the computer giant’s good press, enjoy jumping on any of its faults. The story was further driven by a media which loved the ironic contrast of the popular consumer-friendly company, run by a supposedly spiritually-tuned Steve Jobs, hiding potentially dark, cruel secrets.
In short, it got attention. At the time, the suicide “cluster” was more easily explained; on the story, I wrote:
Since then, there has been a lot of focus on Foxconn and suicides. Many are reporting a “cluster” of suicides, insinuating that Apple’s secretive nature is somehow linked to an oppressive work environment at the contractor. Note this Huffington Post article titled “Apple Supplier Foxconn Reports Eighth Suicide THIS YEAR,” with “THIS YEAR” in all caps, as if it is a shocking number. That sets the tone for the article, which, typical for articles like this, otherwise insinuates a shadowy, oppressive, iron-fisted horror chamber with Apple somehow tied in.
Terrible, right? Apple’s policies are killing these poor, oppressed workers, we’re led to believe. Except that, as stated above, Apple is just one of their clients; why put “Apple Supplier” at the start of the headline? And in fact, instead of the suicides being a sign of terrible stress, the opposite may actually be true. A few more responsible writers actually looked at the larger context and applied the Chinese national suicide rate–13.0 per 100,000 for men, 14.9 for women–and found that for the 300,000 workers at Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant, there should be between 39 and 43 suicides per year. So by now, by mid-year, we should have seen about 20 suicides at the plant so far. Instead there have been 8. In that context, one can hardly make an argument about workers being horribly oppressed.
So the attention is not new–but it did flare recently. One thing that made it flare up were visuals–Foxconn installed nets to deter people from jumping off the tops of buildings, adding to the false impression that it was practically raining employees. More irony, with art this time–the media loved it.
But another thing that made people irate were the reports of horrible abuses. There’s a guy named Mike Daisey who does a stage show called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, who re-ignited the controversy by reporting on his trip to China, where he claims to have met with workers and saw first-hand the crippling effects of employer abuse–this is from Ed Schultz’s show:
SCHULTZ: We are joined tonight Mike Daisey. Great to have you with us. His monologue called “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” And it’s performed at the public theater in New York City. For 18 months you have been doing this, 19 cities across the world. First of all, I’m intrigued, congratulations. I have not seen your performance, but you come to us tonight with absolute rave reviews. I’ve talked to people who have seen you. And you just sit down at the desk and you tell it like it is about what you saw in China. And I’m intrigued what motivated you to do that?
DAISEY: I have always loved technology. I have loved Apple, actually. I loved the devices. And I knew a lot about them, because I’m kind of a tech geek that way. I realized on day that I didn’t actually know — I knew how to take my computer apart, but I didn’t know how it had actually been made. And I started researching it. And a lot of these stories that are coming out now, human rights groups have been reporting on them for the better part of a decade. So none of this is actually controversial. This is actually how things are done across the electronics industry. So I felt compelled to go to China and actually dig in the story.
SCHULTZ: And you went there in 2010, correct?
SCHULTZ: OK. What did you see?
DAISEY: I saw all the things that everyone has been reporting on. I saw under-age workers. I talked to workers who were 13, 14, 15 years old. I met people whose hands have been destroyed from doing the same motion again and again on the line, carpal tunnel on a scale we can hardly imagine.
SCHULTZ: Making Apple products?
DAISEY: Yes. And making products across the electronics industry. All our electronics are made in this fashion.
SCHULTZ: What do these people get paid in China to do this? What does Apple pay them? I mean, this is all about cheap labor, isn’t it?
DAISEY: It is. Cheap labor is the engine that fuels this entire enterprise. It should be said that there is a different standard of living. And it’s one of the reasons that all this industry goes to the area. That said, it’s still true that the amount people are being paid is low enough that they feel like they need to work that incredibly excessive amount of overtime. And then they’re practically required to do it until they drive themselves into the ground.
Daisey went all over the media, spreading this story. Telling people about how workers were being crippled regularly because of the unsafe conditions, driven into the ground by forced shifts lasting more than a day. He told of one worker who, while Daisey was in China, worked a 34 hour shift until he died. He painted a picture where people were being driven to kill themselves over the horrific conditions.
This created a furor, sparking protests against Apple. However, it didn’t exactly ring true to me, mostly for the same reason the suicide story did not. I not only remembered that, but I also remember two times in my own experience where there were union actions against different places where I worked, and the claims made by disgruntled workers were, for the most part, a concoction of wild accusations, specious rumors, and speculation based upon the worst imagined conditions, but then expressed as the gospel truth. The kernel of truth tends to get buried beneath all of the hyperbole. So I know that things can get distorted even more than Steve Jobs himself was capable of.
In addition, Apple has not been–contrary to rumor–either complicit in nor apathetic about such matters. For years, Apple has performed their own checks on contractors to make sure they are not committing worker abuses, and they have made these reports public, even though they are often used to unfairly vilify Apple.
This also irritated me about Daisey’s claims–he said that he was glad that Apple is “actually starting to react,” when it had been working to stem any such abuses for years, a fact Daisey either didn’t know about or didn’t care to look up.
When a co-worker brought up these issues with me and asked my opinion (knowing my affinity for Apple products), I said what I felt: that probably Apple was taking advantage of cheap labor and that the workload and conditions would be ones we ourselves would not enjoy… but that most of the accusations being made were likely not true. I figured that this guy Daisey was predisposed to believe the worst, took at face value everything that he was told–and then exaggerated further for effect, being so passionate about it.
What I did not know is what was just revealed by a journalist, who, with the producer of This American Life, confronted Daisey on his reports. The show that broadcast Daisey’s account has now retracted their episode because Daisey was making most of this crap up:
Cathy Lee, Daisey’s translator in Shenzhen, was with Daisey at this meeting in Shenzhen. I met her in the exact place she took Daisey—the gates of Foxconn. So I asked her: “Did you meet people who fit this description?”
“No,” she said.
“So there was nobody who said they were poisoned by hexane?” I continued.
Lee’s answer was the same: “No. Nobody mentioned the Hexane.”
I pressed Cathy to confirm other key details that Daisey reported. Did the guards have guns when you came here with Mike Daisey? With each question I got the same answer from Lee. “No,” or “This is not true.”
Daisey claims he met underage workers at Foxconn. He says he talked to a man whose hand was twisted into a claw from making iPads. He describes visiting factory dorm rooms with beds stacked to the ceiling. But Cathy says none of this happened.
When confronted with all of this, Daisey pulled a Limbaugh, claiming to be an entertainer and not a journalist:
“Look. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work,” Daisey said. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”
Yes, I am sure that he regrets it now that he is completely disgraced. I am sure that he did not make the rather cold calculation that if he presented it as “theater,” then he would not have received a millionth of the attention that he did.
And I am sure we can take him at his word now, when he tells us that he “stands behind his work.” A galling claim, considering how much he lied, and in the midst of that lying, he accused Apple of dishonestly influencing a labor group who were investigating the Foxconn plant.
Worse, calling it “theater” when he made the direct claim, on news shows, not at all “in character,” after having been introduced as “telling it like it is,” as a factual report of what he personally saw… that’s not theater, that is out-and-out fraud.
How did he defend that? Like this:
Rob Schmitz: Cathy says you did not talk to workers who were poisoned with hexane.
Mike Daisey: That’s correct.
RS: So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw?
MD: I wouldn’t express it that way.
RS: How would you express it?
MD: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip.
Ira Glass: Did you meet workers like that? Or did you just read about the issue?
MD: I met workers in, um, Hong Kong, going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was a constant conversation among those workers.
IG: So you didn’t meet an actual worker who’d been poisoned by hexane.
MD: That’s correct.
So he meets some disgruntled workers who tell second-hand tales about people they heard about who were poisoned by chemicals, and believes that it is OK to represent this by telling that he himself saw these people firsthand.
Frankly, Apple should sue the crap out of this liar and give every penny he dishonestly earned spreading those lies to Foxconn employees.
Because, in the end, this is not about Apple using Foxconn workers for they enrichment–it was Daisey who was doing exactly that. He used them to sell his one-man show, to gain fame and fortune.
Once again, this does not mean that there are none or never have been any abuses. There may be–but we don’t know. Apple may be bullshitting us as badly as Daisey was–but we have no evidence to support that. Workers at Foxconn may be abused and oppressed–but we have nothing but rumors, mostly now discredited thanks to Daisey, to back up that suspicion.
Foxconn could just as well be what they present themselves as being–an above-average workplace for China, treating its workers as well as can be expected, in conditions that the workers find appealing enough to apply for jobs in massive numbers. Again, we just don’t know for sure. There’s no convincing evidence either way.
So take it for what you will.