Apple’s iEconomy a Veritable Labor Dystopia

Foxconn employees

Foxconn employees

Do yourself a favor: listen to Mike Daisey’s amazing story from This American Life about visiting the factory in China that makes our iPhones, iPads, and a huge percentage of all the other electronic crap we use on a daily basis. It will change the way you look at the world.

I know that I’m late in plugging this; Daisey’s piece originally aired on the radio on January 6 and (as we will see below) has since attracted a ton of attention. But the story deserves all of it and more. There’s no way to do the tale justice in a brief write-up. Suffice it to say, the story is vividly delivered and full of remarkable, often counterintuitive insights. As just one example, after stepping out of the plant (which employs a jaw-dropping 430,000 workers, according to the This American Life piece) Daisey reflects:

“When I leave the factory, as I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out, the way I see everything is starting to change. I keep thinking, how often do we wish more things were handmade? Oh, we talk about that all the time, don’t we? ‘I wish it was like the old days. I wish things had that human touch.’ But that’s not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world.

“Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair. One after another after another. Everything is handmade.”

Not only is the story a marvelous piece of narrative journalism, it has already made a big impact—the kind of impact that we usually wait for after an excellent exposé comes out, and then wait some more… and then keep waiting until despair sets in. In this case, as Daisey reports on his Facebook page:

“In its first week the episode was the most downloaded in This American Life’s history. The internet exploded, and the story went everywhere—I received over a thousand emails in just a few days; the response was overwhelming.

“That same week news broke that hundreds of Foxconn workers had a stand-off that lasted two days, where they were all threatening mass suicide by throwing themselves off the roof of the plant over their working conditions. (Details here.)

“This is at Foxconn, a company which Apple’s own 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report said was completely up to code, and which Apple applauded for their efforts. This is the company about which Steve Jobs said the employees enjoyed a virtual paradise of movie theaters, swimming pools, and luxury.

“A week after our show was broadcast, Apple made an abrupt announcement. After years of stonewalling and silence, they released the full list of their suppliers, and agreed to outside, independent monitoring of working conditions in the factories they use. It is not everything, but it is a small step down the right road. (Details here.)….

“I’ve received a number of emails from Apple employees who have told me they believe that hearing this story on This American Life, a program many Apple employees listen to with their families and their children, created ‘a morale situation’ that finally compelled Apple to begin to do the right thing.”

All this is unusual to say the least. Subsequent to Daisey’s radio story, the New York Times launched a series of much-read, much-discussed articles in what it is calling its “iEconomy” series. The stories revealed that “Last year, [Apple] earned over $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil or Google.” Such profits, not surprisingly, were built on a firm foundation of exploitation:

“Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors. More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health.”

At the end of his radio story, Daisey does a fine job of standing up to defenders of sweatshops who portray exploitative factories as a legitimate stepping-stone on the path to economic development. It’s a silly debate. Advocates are not talking about Chinese workers receiving U.S.-level wages. They are talking about basic health and safety protections, basic standards for child labor and working hours, basic rights to organize—human rights that can and should be held inviolable.

Last week, I wrote a complaint about columnist Thomas Friedman who, after reading the first Times article in the series, expressed admiring wonder at the speed and flexibility of Chinese manufacturing—while neglecting to voice one iota of concern for workers’ rights. That was before I had heard the This American Life story, so I was taking Friedman to task just on the basis of the reporting in the Times. But do this: listen to Daisey’s interviews with workers who have been discarded at age twenty-six, their nervous systems damaged by toxins or their hands no longer useable due to repetitive stress. Then read Friedman’s column—with its gee-whiz awe at corporate globalization’s splendid efficiency—and tell me that this guy doesn’t look like a slimeball.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.