Mike Daisey and the great Foxconn con
A new report from inside the giant Chinese factory gives the lie, again, to claims about life on the Apple assembly line.
Standing on the steps of the Grand Central Station Apple Store in February this year, Mike Daisey, the monologist behind the off-Broadway hit The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, told journalists of the harsh lives of workers at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where Apple products like iPads and iPhones are assembled. The popular radio show, This American Life, had just dedicated a full programme to Daisey’s account of his trip to China. His stories of maimed workers, underage factory girls and sardine can-like dorm rooms were threatening to do to Apple what the anti-sweat shop movement did to Nike in the Nineties.
But the problem, as we now know, was that Daisey’s dramatic account of his brief visit to China was largely fabricated. He had employed a great deal of artistic licence while presenting his narrative as fact on This American Life, as well as in appearances on media outlets like CNN, C-SPAN and MSNBC, and at Grand Central Station, where he headed up a protest against Apple.
By now, the flaws in TAL‘s fact-checking process and Daisey’s largely unapologetic response to the saga have been mulled over in great detail. With this week’s airing of The People Behind Your iPad on Marketplace, an American Public Media show, we’re likely to get a more nuanced take on what life as a Foxconn worker is like. The journalist behind this radio series, China correspondent Rob Schmitz, was the one who exposed Daisey’s lies, leading to TAL retracting its show.
TAL is a great, well-respected factual storytelling institution and it has baffled many that it let Daisey’s lies slip through. As for Daisey, he has expressed regret for presenting his story as journalism on TAL, but he does not regret writing the story, which he continues to tell. Others have defended his decision to play around with the facts in order to send a big message that should come out, namely that Foxconn’s working conditions are dire, that Apple has a responsibility to do something about it, and that Westerners should change their consumption habits in solidarity with Chinese workers.
What really seems to have happened is that Daisey found it appropriate to manipulate reality in order to reveal what he sees as a ‘higher truth’. To the folks at TAL, and commentators and campaigners elsewhere, his concoction of the most horrid claims ever made about Chinese brutality, Western greed and corporate negligence made for such a powerful story because it all rang true. In other words, it confirmed certain broadly accepted views of the consumerist world order that rarely go unquestioned. Daisey’s storyline gets told in myriad ways these days and the narrative is very familiar: there’s the brutal developing world regime exploiting its people, the Western corporation acting on the profit motive, the hapless victims, and the rescuers – us here in the West – who must be made to feel guilty about our material lusts so that we take action to help free those victims.
As Adam Minter, a Bloomberg columnist who has visited more than 150 Chinese factories, told Schmitz: ‘Foxconn bad. iPhone bad. Sign a petition. Now you’re good…That’s a great simple message and it’s going to resonate with a public radio listener. It’s going to resonate with the New York Times reader. And I think that’s one of the reasons [Daisey] has had so much traction.’
Since TAL‘s retraction, Schmitz has gone behind the Foxconn factory gates, becoming only the second journalist to be granted access to Apple’s production lines. In his radio show, he looks at what it’s like to put together iPhones and iPads and why Chinese people choose to travel miles to seek work at Foxconn, which manufactures 40 per cent of the world’s electronic products. Schmitz talks to workers outside the gates, too, without permission from Foxconn or Apple.
A major issue for Daisey was the long working hours at Foxconn’s factories and Apple’s failure to hold Foxconn to account for violating its code of conduct, which limits working weeks to 60 hours and requires at least one day off per week. Foxconn has recently agreed to reduce the overtime hours for its workers. So the Chinese employees must be happy, right? After all, this will give them more time to relax, more time to themselves.
According to Schmitz, the cut in hours may actually put many Chinese people out of work. ‘Now keep in mind’, he says, ‘that 99 per cent of the workforce at the Shenzhen factory are migrant workers. They came to Shenzhen from hundreds of miles away to work here, and they came here specifically to work a lot of overtime. So many of the responses I got were like this one, from a worker named Xu… he’s saying that he’ll return to his home village soon. He’s realised that he can’t save enough money living in a developed coastal city like Shenzhen – the cost of living is just too high.’
Other writers who have spent time at Foxconn and who have taken the time actually to speak to factory workers – with and without official approval from those workers’ bosses – have also shown that reality in Shenzhen does not so easily match the morality tale that Daisey has tried to present, well-intentioned as he may claim he is.
For instance, Tim Culpan, a reporter who has covered Foxconn for more than a decade, including co-writing, ‘Inside Foxconn’, a 6,000-plus-word cover story for Bloomberg Businessweek, has said that Foxconn workers’ biggest complaint is that they don’t get enough overtime. ‘They wanted to work more, to get more money.’ And Leslie Chang, who spent two years talking to assembly-line workers in China as part of her research for her book Factory Girls, has said: ‘They are not victims. The workers choose to leave the countryside to go to the city… Certainly the system is stacked against them. But their choice is to leave to a better factory. And over time, the really bad factories don’t have workers and they have to improve conditions or they go out of business.’
These kinds of accounts – less dramatic, less black-and-white, less Dickensian – do not fit the comforting tale that Daisey put forward and that TAL, way too unquestioningly, helped spread to thousands of listeners. Daisey’s story, harrowing as it was to listen to, was comforting to many because it confirmed a view of the Chinese and of ourselves that was already deeply ingrained. That also explains why some are still excusing his ‘good lies’ on the grounds that it supposedly stirred up debate and helped pressure Foxconn to clean up its act, nevermind that it might have an adverse effect on the migrants who are in Shenzhen to work as much as possible and then get out of there ASAP.
In an interview with Schmitz and Ira Glass, TAL‘s host, Daisey explained that the reason he embellished his story – even lying about meeting a man whose hand was twisted into a claw from making iPads – was that he ‘wanted to tell a story that captured the totality’ of his trip. In other words, what’s a lie here or an embellishment there when the overall message still fits Daisey’s view of reality?
In the end, a lie is a lie, no matter in whose name it is told. Daisey’s story was designed to deceive, and TAL, despite its access to journalistic tools of scrutiny, fell for it and clamoured to share it with the public. This shows that it is taken for granted these days that the story of evil Chinese people and harmful consumption is truthful and must be told.
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