“I’m holding a new iPhone 4S in my hands. This is the one you can talk to and it talks back. Let’s try this: Siri, where do you come from?”
“I, Siri, was designed by Apple in California.”
“Where were you manufactured?”
“I’m not allowed to say.”
“Good question. Anything else I can do for you?”
And that was how Ira Glass opened the latest episode of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, in which Glass gets monologist Mike Daisey, creator of the one-man stage show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” to perform an excerpt from his acclaimed play.
It’s not all mirth and merriment though. Daisey tells of how after he saw the infamous photo of a very young-looking female Chinese factory worker posing next to an iPhone she was assembling, he became intensely curious as to just what was going on in that picture.
We listen in as Daisey heads to Shenzhen (which "looks like Bladerunner threw up on itself"), China in 2010 to visit the factory where the Apple (AAPL) products he loves are made. Yes, we’re talking about Foxconn, assembler of products for Amazon (AMZN), Sony (SNE), Dell (DELL) and Dow Jones (^DJI) components Microsoft (MSFT) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and more notoriously, the site where 32 workers attempted suicide that year because of harsh working conditions and where some 150 threatened to just last week over a severance pay dispute
Wanting to find out for himself just how bad conditions at Foxconn are, he walks right up to workers exiting the factory’s gate and talks to them about their lives. When asked why he was asking questions about Foxconn and what he planned to do with the information, Daisey says that he's a storyteller, not a journalist. Later, posing as a businessman, he enters the factory, where he finds workers under the age of 15 who fibbed about their ages to secure their jobs and learns that a man died that day after completing a 34-hour shift. It’s pretty incredible stuff.
As MIT’s Technology Review points out, the electronics industry is the worst violator of labor rights globally – yes, even worse than the mining and chemicals sectors.
However, Richard Locke at the Boston Review argues, it is precisely the type of “flexible” labor practices that Foxconn adopts that enables the satiation of our appetite for quick product turnovers. So, unless we are willing to pay a premium for “fair trade” or “conflict-free” electronics ala fair trade coffee or conflict-free diamonds, it’s unlikely that the harsh working conditions of factories like Foxconn’s will improve significantly.
Listen to "This American Life" via the link below.