The Thread Needler

Hits: the Agony and the Ecstasy of Apple

Aside from reviewing iTunes Match, I haven’t posted much about Apple since I excoriated Samsung for insulting baristas; (I’m still fuming about that callous, classist ad.)

But Apple news and commentary is never in short supply, so I thought I’d pass some along.


Mike Daisey has been rightfully labeled a “liar” for fabricating sections of his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs – a supposedly first-hand account of exploitative labor practices in Apple manufacturing plants in China.

NPR’s This American Life devoted a full episode to airing selections from the performance, implicitly vouching for its truthfulness. But NPR later retracted the episode after discovering discrepancies in Daisey’s account.

This American Life devoted another full episode to the retraction. Most of the episode consists of a painful series of excuses, rationalizations and half-lies from Daisey. But the final third of the episode is spent discussing real problems with Apple’s labor practices. Here’s an excerpt, featuring New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg.

[Duhigg:] There were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again.

And what has happened today is that rather than exporting that standard of life, which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation.

So should you feel bad that someone is working 12 to 24 hours a day in order to produce the iPhone that you’re carrying in your pocket—

Ira Glass: Well, now like, when you say it like that, suddenly I feel bad again, but okay, yeah. [laughter]

Charles Duhigg: I don’t know whether you should feel bad, right? I mean—

Ira Glass: But, but finish your thought.

Charles Duhigg: Should you feel bad about that? I don’t know, that’s for you to judge, but I think the the way to pose that question is… do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones and iPads and, and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions and perpetuate because of an economy that you are—

Ira Glass: Right.

Charles Duhigg: —supporting with your dollars.

Ira Glass: Right. I am the direct beneficiary of those harsh conditions.

Charles Duhigg: You’re not only the direct beneficiary; you are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.


Duhigg coauthored a recent New York Times series exposing the dystopian, sometimes deadly conditions that Chinese workers confront as they build Apple products.

Some [employees] 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 [...]

Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. [...]

Within 93 facilities, at least half of workers exceeded the 60-hours-a-week work limit. At a similar number, employees worked more than six days a week. There were incidents of discrimination, improper safety precautions, failure to pay required overtime rates and other violations. [...]

[In 2009], a Foxconn employee fell or jumped from an apartment building after losing an iPhone prototype. Over the next two years, at least 18 other Foxconn workers attempted suicide or fell from buildings in manners that suggested suicide attempts. [...]

In January 2010, workers at a Chinese factory owned by Wintek, an Apple manufacturing partner, went on strike over a variety of issues [...] Investigations by news organizations revealed that over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis. [...]

Apple directly contributes to these disastrous conditions by forcing suppliers to constantly cut costs, taking from them the resources needed to improve workers’ safety and well-being. (The company claims to have created a new system of audits that will improve working conditions.)


Pivoting back to Mike Daisey, John Gruber argues that the format of Daisey’s fabricated monologue – a seemingly true narration – does not absolve Daisey of journalistic responsibility, but makes his violations of journalistic ethics that much worse by exaggerating the prevalence of worker mistreatment. (Foxconn is the Chinese corporation that Apple contracts with to manufacture its products.)

I would argue that the most powerful credible overview of the problems in Apple’s Chinese manufacturing is the reporting by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza for The New York Times, earlier this year. But after re-reading their story for the Times, as well as Apple’s own 2012, 2011, and 2010 “Supplier Responsibility” reports, I can’t find anything reported by the Times that Apple itself hasn’t reported. The Times’s report is more compelling; it adds color and punch and presents its conclusions more powerfully and emotionally through its use of a narrative. But factually, the Times’s reporting gives credence to the scope and accuracy of Apple’s own public reporting.

Daisey told an entirely different story. Daisey’s story was this: Not only did those things happen, but they are all ongoing problems, right now, today, and they are so rampant, so commonplace, that a big white American wearing a Hawaiian shirt — a man who’s never before been to China and speaks neither Mandarin nor Cantonese — can simply travel to Shenzhen, China and stand outside the Foxconn gates with a translator for a few shifts and he will find workers as young as 12, 13, and 14 walking out. Any day, every day. That in the course of a single six-day trip, that same man could encounter a man who lost the use of a hand while assembling iPads and a group of workers poisoned by n-hexane, and that a man would drop dead after working a 34-hour shift. Just another week at Foxconn. That was Mike Daisey’s story — and it bears no resemblance to anything anyone else has reported.


There is a counterargument in support of Apple’s practices. In a nutshell: The workers currently employed building Apple products would otherwise be toiling under even worse conditions – in sweatshops putting together low-cost exports or in the countryside practicing subsistence agriculture, earning less, with no chance of saving money to pass on to their children.

Years ago, Paul Krugman wrote an essay criticizing anti-trade activists for ignoring this brutal dilemma.

Such moral outrage is common among the opponents of globalization–of the transfer of technology and capital from high-wage to low-wage countries and the resulting growth of labor-intensive Third World exports. These critics take it as a given that anyone with a good word for this process is naive or corrupt and, in either case, a de facto agent of global capital in its oppression of workers here and abroad.

But matters are not that simple, and the moral lines are not that clear. In fact, let me make a counter-accusation: The lofty moral tone of the opponents of globalization is possible only because they have chosen not to think their position through. While fat-cat capitalists might benefit from globalization, the biggest beneficiaries are, yes, Third World workers.

After all, global poverty is not something recently invented for the benefit of multinational corporations.


Matthew Yglesias recently made a similar argument, with specific reference to Apple.

When last I wrote about working conditions in Foxconn factories some people asked if I was saying that everything’s okay as long as you’re not running the absolute worst workplace in the world. That’s not what I’m saying, but I am saying that if you want to understand labor standards and working conditions around the world you have to understand the context. If thousands of Chinese people line up for jobs at Foxconn when they become available, that’s telling you something about the Chinese labor market. Specifically it’s an indication that Foxconn is actually raising the bar for working conditions and compensation standards in East Asia. And that makes sense. The stuff they make at Foxconn is stuff you’ve heard of, associated with a major American brand that makes high-margin products. That doesn’t mean complaining about Apple is pointless, it probably in part reflects the fact that Apple is at least somewhat sensitive to being complained about in a way that a no-name gasket manufacturer isn’t.


Finally, critics of Apple ignore the benefits that come as a result of Apple designing and manufacturing powerful, low-cost, high-technology products on a massive scale.

Case-in-point: millions of Chinese citizens can now access the tools, information and communications platforms available to anyone with an iOS or Android device. In fact, the rate of activations of smartphones and tablets in China has now surpassed that of the U.S.

Flurry recently quantified China’s meteoric adoption of iOS and Android applications. While China ranked 10th in application sessions at the beginning of 2011, it finished the year in 2nd place, only behind the United States. With its large population and rapidly emerging middle class, adoption of apps vaulted China into the position of world’s 2nd largest app economy. In additional analysis, Flurry also determined that China has the most market upside, based on calculating those in China who can afford smartphones versus the current installed base.

This report reveals that, for the first time ever, China now leads in new smart device adoption (iOS and Android smartphones and tablets).

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