Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory – It’s About Us

This American Life is pretty much always great, but this podcast – covering one man’s journey into the Chinese factories that make our tech products – affected me deeply.

Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory

Heartbreaking and fascinating, seriously worth 45 minutes of your life. Stories of extraordinarily long hours, child labor, and repetitive stress injuries that make our own seem like hangnails in comparison. Stories of people assembling parts as small as human hairs by hand for 16 hours at a stretch, stories of people working with their hands until their bones simply crumble (and they’re out of work for life). Stories of experiments with neurotoxins like hexane being done on unwitting human workers. It goes on and on.

But listen through to the last ten minutes, where the emotional impact, and the anger the story generates,  is sort of qualified by observations of economic realities in China: “Hundreds of thousands of Chinese choose the grimness of factory life over the grimness of the rice paddies.”

I remember when the suicide nets went up around the Foxconn factory, and the simplistic reactions people had to their existence. But some perspective helps – the truth is, China as a whole has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, while those rates are actually lower in factory cities like Chengdu than they are in the rest of the country. And Foxconn is doing the right thing by trying to prevent them – that’s a good thing, not an example of Foxconn simply accepting suicide as a cost of doing business.

But while Apple is  a sexy centerpoint for the story, it’s important to remember that this isn’t really a story about Apple – virtually every single technology product we buy, from DVD players to smartphones to game consoles to blenders, is made under similar conditions.

Actually, this isn’t even a story about the human cost of our enjoyment of technology. Virtually everything on the shelves at Walmart and Target is made in China. The clothes on your back, that car you drive… chances are high those things were made in conditions that are similar or worse than those at Foxconn. It’s not about Apple – it’s about us (ZDNet’s Larry Dignan does a good job widening the scope of the story in this post).

The popularity of this story is an opportunity for the west to reflect on the implications of its addiction to cheap products in general. We’ve grown into  a dangerous symbiotic relationship with China – we can’t shake the allure of cheap products, and they can’t shake the allure of jobs for their citizens. Your cheap jeans create jobs for peasants. And if we were somehow to bring those jobs back to the U.S., we would be throwing those peasants back into the poverty they’ve partially escaped in the past decade. Reality is messy.

Coupled with a recent NY Times piece covering the same topic, it’s been a hard week for Apple, who are scrambling to do spin control. But whether this is an Apple problem or a larger problem of our addiction to cheap goods, Apple could be stepping up as a leader in making a difference here. With the company’s insane bankroll, they could and should be doing more to affect manufacturing conditions.

What about you? Would you be willing to pay 50% more for an iPhone or an HP laptop if it meant you knew it was made in the U.S., under different conditions?

See also: Apple CEO Steve Cook Responds to Allegations

8 thoughts on “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory – It’s About Us

  1. Scott Squire

    I’ve been thinking of this a bunch too. The story was sort of on my radar before I saw Mr. Daisey’s show. (At the time I saw the show, I thought ‘this is a This American Life story just waiting to happen,’ I don’t mind saying.) There was also a several minute spot on Foxconn I happened to see on the Daily Show a week or so ago.

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-january-16-2012/fear-factory

    As a forever Mac user, a step below Daisey in fanboy status but nevertheless practically committed to the whole Apple thing, I REALLY wish Cupertino would step up and become a real leader in addressing the problems Mike highlights.

    It seems the time is as ripe as it’s ever been for it, but it could only happen if it could be done profitably. But the right story (as the marketers love to say) could really sell it: Macs have always been a bit more money for a lot better computer*–now they’re a bit more-more money for a lot better computer AND a cleaner conscience.

    Why not, Apple? I’m buying.

    *arguably

  2. Dan Woods

    I would definitely pay a premium for Humanely manufactured Apple Goods, as long as they are still made to Apple’s current quality standards.

    HP products however, well, just look at the TouchPad and Cheap Printers. They aren’t worth the List price, let alone the suffering the workers have to go through to get the product to us.

    Products with poor after-sales support, that are only designed to last a few months are what really cheapens the value of these workers efforts.

  3. Scott Squire

    I wonder about the difference, there on the ground among the folks who manufacture the stuff in China, between the crappy stuff and the better quality stuff.

    Does the experience differ significantly? Apple vs HP (or some of that wicked-cheap off brand junk, more to the point). The business model at this end is different, but is one automatically more profitable?

    I just bought a pair of rubber boots for my kid. Bogs. They were like three times as expensive as the cheaper ones, four feet away on the store’s shelf. Both are made in China.

    Does my paying more (for what I believe is a better product) afford any kind of assurance that the folks who made the product toil under more humane conditions than the folks making the one I didn’t buy?

    That’s the illusory hope Daisey’s talking about. It serves our ‘needs’ so well.

  4. Scot Hacker

    Well, besides the money, the other factor is ramp-up time. Nowhere in the U.S. can a factory hire 2,000 new workers overnight, or come anywhere close to meeting the numbers of devices America “needs.” It’s a good thought experiment, but those jobs aren’t coming back to the U.S. The only hope is for us to apply pressure for humane working conditions, and to keep the heat on. If we look away (as we always have), capitalism will win every time. “Fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders” and all that.

  5. Paul

    Gresham’s law. An economic principle which states that “bad”, or less-valuable, currency will cause well valued or “good” currency to leave the market (hoarding, profit taking). Or, if both currencies are mandated to exist in the same market, the entire market will suffer devaluation because of the introduction of “bad” currency.

    There are people applying this principle to ethics in business. When the new business valuation benchmark is short-term, high-yield profit, and a successful model is introduced to the market that validates the economics (without an ethical component as a regulator), then that new market principle will come to dominate the market. Subsequently making long-term “slow”-yield business models unprofitable, or constrained to specific niches in the greater new market. As there is no demand for ethics in the greater business model – only profit – regulating the growth of your business by using ethical principles (responsibility to community, employees, regional economics) is suicide….OR…a recipe for strong local-only businesses. This phenomenon is also a reason to consider a debate on the issue of using the word “free” when discussing market economies. Does “free” demand freedom from any regulation?…or does “free” imply the greater freedom of humanity to create modes of interaction?…which, of course, are all subject to the constraints of consensus and compromise (regulations). Does a free market really exist? If not…why can’t a market be constrained by social ethical concerns that can only be expressed in the wider society in the form of laws? Unless we believe that business owners can be convinced of the wisdom of ethical behavior in all transactions, and act accordingly.

  6. Scot Hacker

    Extremely well said Paul. To me, a truly free market – with no regulations and where greed always trumps ethics – is a description of the most nightmarish world I can imagine. Do not want.

  7. Paul

    I wish there was a reasonable ear in the political spectrum that would consider things like resource nationalization and price caps, or a legal framework to require all products sold in the US to be made under US conditions for the workers…throughout the supply/resource chain. Including the source minerals that go into components.

    Recently overheard in a café – delivered by someone who was extremely well baked (not me): “…when the Americans can finally turn Milton Freedman into Joseph Goebbels, we’ll have gotten somewhere…” Note: I live in the same city with the EU Investment bank, the EU Economic Council, and the EU Central Bank Committee (the Euro group). This guy was wearing the admin banker’s uniform – his tie could pay for a month of my kid’s school tuition. Conclusion: occupy, occupy, occupy – the message is sinking in.

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