True Lies About Apple and Foxconn

Hannah GurmanApple, the most profitable company in existence and one of the most popular brands ever created, has gotten used to being the glowing center of attention. The release of the next iPhone or the new iPad invariably stirs an orgy of conspicuous consumption. Recently, however, a series of exposés have shifted some attention to the darker side of Apple, shining a light on the working conditions at the Foxconn factories in China where its products are made.

Going up against Apple is no joke. Given the company’s power and reputation, it’s not surprising that, for every small step forward in raising public consciousness on the issue of Apple’s global labor practices, there have also been disappointments and setbacks. Nowhere has this been starker than in the case of Mike Daisey’s controversial piece of political theater, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

In a matter of weeks, Daisey went from being seen as a muckraking journalist to an untrustworthy liar. The story has become a fable of accountability in the age of globalization. A man who attempts to hold the richest company in the world accountable for its labor practices is himself held accountable for the way he went about it. It’s a moral and practical conundrum that epitomizes the mini-successes and broader challenges of fostering a sustained campaign of global labor justice.

The Ecstasy of Mike Daisey

The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a one-act monologue written and performed by Daisey, a very large man dressed in a black short-sleeve shirt and pants who sits behind a table on an otherwise empty stage and spins a tale from a set of notes. This may sound like a snoozer, but Daisey’s performance is energetic and at times truly riveting.

The monologue tells the story of Daisey’s intense love affair with Apple and what happens when he delves into the conditions of the workers who produce his beloved iPhone and iPad. Toward the beginning of the show, Daisey illustrates the depths of his romance with technology in general and with Apple in particular, a company that he is proud to say has shaped his daily rhythms and the very core of his being:

My only hobby is technology. I love technology, I love everything about it…And of all the kinds of technology I love in the world, I love the technology that comes from Apple the most. Because I am an Apple aficionado, I am an Apple partisan, I am an Apple fanboy, I am a worshipper of the cult of Mac. I have been to the House of Jobs, I have walked through the stations of his cross, I have knelt before his throne.

As the play continues, Daisey details his coming of age alongside the evolution of Apple, in the process conveying a mini-company history that exposes the combination of “genius” and “asshole” epitomized by Steve Jobs. Over the course of this story, Daisey explains how the increasingly totalitarian aspects of Apple have gradually eroded consumer autonomy.

The real drama of the show begins when Daisey recounts an epiphany he had a few years ago on discovering some pictures from the factory in China where Apple’s devices are made. For the first time, he started to think seriously about the people who made his phone. Increasingly preoccupied with these thoughts, Daisey made a trip to China and arranged to interview workers at the Foxconn factory in the gigantic manufacturing city of Shenzhen, where many of Apple’s products and a huge percentage of the world’s electronics are made. Foxconn, a Taiwanese company that also contracts with other electronic companies, including Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, employs 1.2 million workers in China.

Daisey’s inquiry into the lived experiences of these workers approximates through theater something like Karl Marx’s de-fetishization of the commodity, bringing to light the otherwise invisible labor that goes into the things we buy. The dramatic center of the monologue is an account of Daisey’s encounters outside the gates at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. He details conversations with factory workers who are pushed to the limits of human toil, reportedly working successive 12-hour shifts and sleeping in overcrowded dormitories, with as many as 15 bunks to a room. He recounts a conversation with a 13-year-old worker and another with a man whose right hand has been mangled by a machine and is part of an underground union. This story becomes the basis for a profound shift in Daisey’s relationship with Apple and, ultimately, a plea to the audience to join Daisey in a concerted campaign to force Apple to do something about these deplorable working conditions.

Daisey has been performing The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs since 2010. Although the show received positive reviews, it did not really take off until after Steve Jobs’ death in October 2011. In response to all the hagiographic commentaries at that time, serious criticism of Apple’s global labor practices started to gain more visibility.

Excerpts from the show were featured in January on the NPR program This American Life, which quickly became the most downloaded episode in the history of the program. Subsequently, on January 25, The New York Times published a multi-page feature story, by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, on Apple’s global labor practices and the working conditions at Foxconn.

The Agony of Mike Daisey

And then the controversy unfolded. On March 16, This American Life publicly revealed its recent discovery that Daisey had exaggerated and fabricated many of the details of his experiences in Shenzhen. When China-based journalist Rob Schmidt contacted Daisey’s translator in China, he found many discrepancies between Daisey’s account and hers. This American Life publicly retracted the story and removed the audio from its website. Daisey was no longer an admired truth-teller, but instead a sleazy liar.

The initial reports did not reveal the full details of what was and wasn’t true in Daisey’s story. Subsequently, however, This American Life host Ira Glass devoted an entire episode to explaining these details. In the introduction, Glass explained that everything Daisey said about Apple and Foxconn is true: “It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.”

The lies involve details about what Daisey said he actually saw in China. “As far as we can tell, Mike’s monologue is in reality a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched.” For instance, Daisey claimed to have witnessed the overcrowded conditions at the dormitories, but his translator said they never went to the dormitories. He reported conversations with 12- and 13-year-old workers, but she said he only spoke with one girl who claimed to be 13 and never confirmed the age of her friends. The underground union members he met did not actually work for Foxconn, but for another company. He did meet a man with a garbled arm, but he fabricated a scene in which Daisey shows the man his iPhone, and the man looks at the device he made in awe, never before having held the finished product in his hand. As Glass put it, Daisy “pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads.”

Many, including Glass, have argued that Daisey should have labeled his show fiction. I would agree, but only on two basic premises: one, that fiction doesn’t mean entirely made up, and two, that we understand the politics inherent in the particular kind of fiction Daisey has created. The great 19th-century novelists like Balzac, Tolstoy, and even Dickens were critics of industrial capitalism, but they were also interested in teasing out the moral complexity of the system. Although parts of Daisey’s show attempt to capture such complexities, the scenes in which he describes his trip to China do not. These moments belong instead to the tradition of melodrama and sentimental fiction. Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Carmen. Like the characters in those works, the Chinese workers Daisey interviews become archetypes. Yes, they lack the complexity that is inherent in the actual attitudes of most Chinese factory workers. But Daisy is not a realist. Rather, he is a provocateur whose work prompts us to take heed of our own role in the global labor system.

Journalistic Vs. Corporate Accountability

Daisey is nonetheless being held to account for his lack of journalistic integrity. By representing himself as a witness, Daisey’s critics argue, he assumed the role of a journalist but failed to abide by the established rules of journalism. Furthermore, by lying to This American Life, he put that show’s reputation in jeopardy. In the follow-up show, Glass actually interviewed Daisey, an exchange that is itself quite dramatic at moments. After grilling Daisey about why he repeatedly lied, Glass says, “I have such a weird mix of feelings about this, because I simultaneously feel terrible for you, and also, I feel lied to.”

Journalistic accountability is indeed important. However, at a certain point, scrutinizing Daisey’s practice becomes myopic and even absurd. By all accounts, virtually everything Daisey said was true insofar as the things he described do actually occur in factories all over China. By focusing on narrow rules of journalistic accountability, this controversy seemed to lose sight of these larger truths. Questions about Daisey’s accountability threatened to displace the larger issues of corporate accountability, creating a gigantic loophole through which Apple/Foxconn might easily escape.

Apple’s Response

While critics were busy parsing Daisey’s account, Apple was taking steps to preempt any further criticism. In January, it joined the Washington-based Fair Labor Association (FLA), which it enlisted to conduct an independent investigation. FLA visited three Foxconn factories in China where Apple products are made. Together, these employ 178,000 of the approximately half a million workers in Apple’s supply chain.

The FLA report, released on March 29, confirmed much of what Daisey had described in his play. It found that Foxconn employees routinely work overtime, exceeding the 49-hour-a-week limit under Chinese law. Although workers averaged 48 hours a week, some worked multiple consecutive shifts for several days in a row. There were also some important differences from Daisey’s account. The report noted few safety violations, although the relatively safe conditions were partly the result of recent improvements made in the wake of a fatal accident in the Chengdu facility last year, when aluminum dust sparked a fire that killed four workers. The investigators also found no evidence of child labor.

Foxconn has since announced a reduction in unpaid overtime and a 25-percent increase in hourly wages.

A Qualified Success

Some commentators have argued that this development marks a major moment in China’s urban labor dynamic, predicting that wages will go up in other companies and further contribute to the end of China as the world’s capital of cheap labor. That’s probably an exaggeration. Besides, wages are only part of the issue. As Duhigg and Barboza reported, Apple has built its entire design and production process around the flexibility of labor in the Foxconn factories. In Shenzhen, thousands of workers at different parts of the supply chain can be called up at any moment to implement last-minute design changes and work overtime to meet tight deadlines.

We should be careful not to underestimate the power of large corporations like Apple and Foxconn to preserve the conditions that made it possible for them to garner such large profits in the first place.

At the same time, none of these qualified or provisional gains would have been possible without the kind of public scrutiny we have seen in the last few months. The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs deserves credit for helping to foment these developments. Melodrama and sentimental fiction cannot alone change the world, but they have a place in progressive politics. In an era when hard-nosed journalism is vulnerable, the hostility of journalists to Daisey is understandable. Ultimately, however, it undermines potential alliances and fails to document the important political role that artists like Daisey play.

Daisey put it best in his heated interview with Ira Glass, when he suddenly found the words to explain the accomplishment of his show: “I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes—has made—other people delve.”

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Hannah Gurman is an assistant professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She writes on the politics, economics, and culture of U.S. diplomacy and military conflict. Her book, The Dissent Papers, was published by the University of Columbia Press in 2011.