Even With Daisey’s Lies Peeled Away, Apple’s Rotten Core Exposed

Michelle Chen

Activists pass out literature detailing Apple's connection to Foxconn. (Photo via Flickr courtesy MakeITFair)

Apple’s brand glared in the media spot­light this past week, after the pub­lic learned that per­for­mance artist Mike Daisey’s the­atri­cal ren­der­ing of the strug­gles of Apple fac­to­ry work­ers con­tained false claims — painful­ly exposed on an episode of the radio pro­gram This Amer­i­can Life. But if one fun­da­men­tal truth has emerged from the scan­dal sur­round­ing Daisey’s dra­mat­ic fudg­ing, it’s that the lived real­i­ty of many Chi­nese work­ers is undoubt­ed­ly bleak — no embell­ish­ment needed.

Daisey’s per­son­al account is gra­tu­itous­ly pep­pered with fab­ri­ca­tions, but the sto­ry of sys­tem­at­ic exploita­tion is essen­tial­ly true. For years var­i­ous watch­dog groups have tried to hold Apple account­able for harsh work­ing con­di­tions in Chi­na, which have been linked to work­place-relat­ed sui­cides and health haz­ards. Since a num­ber of young work­ers killed them­selves in 2010, the con­sumer advo­ca­cy cam­paign Make IT Fair, togeth­er with the Hong Kong-based Stu­dents Against Cor­po­rate Mis­be­hav­ior (SACOM), have doc­u­ment­ed sys­tem­at­ic abus­es: exhaust­ing hours, an oppres­sive, mil­i­taris­tic work­place cul­ture and, despite con­cil­ia­to­ry pay hikes, extreme­ly low wages in com­par­i­son to the tremen­dous cor­po­rate prof­its and bru­tal work­ing conditions.

It should be not­ed, how­ev­er, that Daisey’s dra­mat­ic license” was debunked large­ly through the real find­ings of intre­pid inves­ti­ga­tions by advo­cates and pro­fes­sion­al reporters, which some com­men­ta­tors have high­light­ed amid the media fall­out. As part of its Retrac­tion” episode, in fact, TAL inter­viewed New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg about the real sto­ry behind Daisey’s fictions.

On the report­ed wide­spread vio­la­tions of a 60-hour week­ly cap on work­ing hours, Duhigg tells host Ira Glass, Apple claims work­ers vol­un­teer for this excess work:

Duhigg: They say, Look, one of the rea­sons why there is so much over­time that’s inap­pro­pri­ate and, in some places, is ille­gal, is because the work­ers them­selves are demand­ing that overtime.”

Now, work­ers don’t always say that. What work­ers often say is that they feel coerced into doing over­time, that if they did­n’t do over­time when it’s asked of them, that they would­n’t get any over­time at all, and that finan­cial­ly they would suf­fer as a result.

This is the kind of more nuanced, day-to-day exploita­tion that Fox­conn work­ers face – not so sen­sa­tion­al, but nonethe­less dri­ven by glob­al eco­nom­ic forces.

Li Qiang, head of the New York-based Chi­na Labor Watch, told In These Times that in terms of the sit­u­a­tions Daisey described, basi­cal­ly, What he said about work­ing con­di­tions is true.” He added, Through this kind of media report­ing, maybe more artists or jour­nal­ists, or oth­ers will go to Chi­na to inves­ti­gate the real cir­cum­stances in Chi­nese fac­to­ries…. This way, this issue can gen­er­ate more pub­lic debate.”

While Apple has tout­ed a new part­ner­ship with the third-par­ty mon­i­tor­ing orga­ni­za­tion Fair Labor Asso­ci­a­tion, many crit­ics remain wary that Apple will con­tin­ue to fail the work­ers at the dregs of the sup­ply chain. Even worse, Apple might turn the scan­dal into a mar­ket­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty, pol­ish­ing its rep­u­ta­tion with a dab of cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty” measures.

Make IT Fair recent­ly denounced the FLA part­ner­ship as a mere PR stunt,” cit­ing com­ments by FLA pres­i­dent Auret van Heer­den prais­ing Apple facil­i­ties as way, way above the aver­age of the norm.” Activists call on Apple and oth­er indus­try lead­ers to adopt more strin­gent eth­i­cal codes, which pro­tect the envi­ron­ment from dam­ag­ing extrac­tion of raw mate­ri­als, hon­or col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights, and pro­tect work­ers and their com­mu­ni­ties from dis­crim­i­na­tion and rights abuses.

Apple’s real atti­tude toward its work­ers has been far from char­i­ta­ble. In a state­ment respond­ing to TALs retrac­tion, SACOM (whose cam­paigns have informed both Daisey’s and TALs report­ing) point­ed to the ongo­ing ram­i­fi­ci­a­tions of an inci­dent that inspired Daisey’s nar­ra­tive — a mass poi­son­ing at a facil­i­ty where work­ers were exposed to the chem­i­cal n‑hexane while pol­ish­ing gleam­ing touchscreens:

In con­trast to Apple’s state­ment that they have all been treat­ed suc­cess­ful­ly, many work­ers still suf­fer from weak limbs and oth­er health prob­lems after nine-month hos­pi­tal­iza­tions. The vic­tims sent three let­ters to Apple last year, but the com­pa­ny did not answer them at all. Like­wise, after the explo­sion at the iPad case man­u­fac­tur­er Riteng in Shang­hai in last Decem­ber, which injured 59 work­ers, Apple has not sent any­one to vis­it the vic­tims. The young work­ers are in despair because their faces were dis­fig­ured due to the fire from the blast. Some of them suf­fer from bones so severe­ly shat­tered that they may be per­ma­nent­ly dis­abled. Three months have passed, but the vic­tims have not received any compensation…. 

While Apple hyp­o­crit­i­cal­ly expressed that the com­pa­ny was deeply sad­dened by the tragedy, it has nev­er apol­o­gized or offered com­pen­sa­tion to the work­ers for its neg­li­gence in com­ply­ing with work safe­ty rules.

For all his pro­fessed empa­thy for Fox­conn work­ers, Daisey’s exag­ger­a­tions were stu­pe­fy­ing­ly self-serv­ing. Even as he awk­ward­ly attempt­ed to express con­tri­tion in the fol­low-up dia­logue with Ira Glass, he insist­ed that with­in the realm of the­ater, he had legit­i­mate­ly blend­ed fic­tion and non­fic­tion to cre­ate a more emo­tive expe­ri­ence for a West­ern audience.

The claim reveals that Daisey lied to ele­vate his role in the sto­ry. He basi­cal­ly decid­ed that the ugly truth wasn’t quite dra­mat­ic enough for him — a side­ways insult to the work­ers whose cause he claimed to champion.

In a cor­re­spon­dence with In These Times, SACOM project offi­cer Chan Sze Wan said, we wor­ry that the pub­lic will mis­un­der­stand [and think] Fox­conn is inno­cent after the Mike Daisey’s case.” As a research-based group, she added, SACOM will con­tin­ue to pro­vide accu­rate infor­ma­tion to con­sumers to solic­it their sup­ports,” but ulti­mate­ly, voic­es of work­ers them­selves will need to be heard:

Nowa­days, Fox­conn work­ers do not have real work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tive sys­tem in the fac­to­ry. So, SACOM has to chan­nel their griev­ances to Apple. How­ev­er, we always empha­size that work­ers should be the ones to mon­i­tor the work­ing con­di­tions at their work­place and fight for the rights.

Fol­low­ing the string of sui­cides, a quote from a Chi­nese blog cap­tured the work­ers’ sto­ry more elo­quent­ly than an Amer­i­can per­former ever could:

Per­haps for the Fox­conn employ­ees and employ­ees like us
– we who are called nong­min­gong, rur­al migrant work­ers, in China –
the use of death is sim­ply to tes­ti­fy that we were ever alive at all,
and that while we lived, we had only despair.

In the con­text of that hushed plea, the media hooplah over the fudged Fox­conn nar­ra­tive sim­ply dis­tracts us from the real mas­ter­work of fic­tion that Apple and oth­er tech giants con­tin­ue to ped­dle: the imag­i­nary world of our gad­gets, a cos­mopoli­tan uni­verse that pre­tends to con­nect every­one while in fact sharp­en­ing the lines between con­sumers and the invis­i­ble work­ers that enable that care­free lifestyle. And we’re all buy­ing it.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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