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Mr. Daisey: "I'm going to lie to lots of people."

These days it seems like everyone is eager to pile on Apple, Inc. (AAPL) about its use of cheap Chinese labor to produce its popular gadgets.  Most of the facts about the abuses can be verified in Apple's own yearly supplier review.  Every year it finds a handful of underage workers at its plants.  And last year only about a third of its suppliers were found to comply with its rules regarding employee hours and overtime.

Apple is one of the few companies that maintains such meticulous reporting on its suppliers' misbehavior, but it also enjoys a unique burden of higher scrutiny, thanks to its enviable position as the world's most profitable technology company.  In recent months some -- such as The New York Times -- lashed out at Apple's efforts to curb abuse, which they viewed as insufficient.  Others, like the Fair Labor Association, who Apple recently paid to become a member of -- or ABC's Dateline defended the Cupertino company.  True, there had been terrible tragedies -- employees explosed to n-Hexane, employees who lost their lives in plant explosions due to poor maintenance.  

But overall, the supporters argue that Apple is working hard to improve, and at the same time raising the impoverished Chinese populous out of back-breaking work in the "rice paddies" and into tough -- by America's increasingly pampered standards -- but respectively safer/gentler high-tech assembly jobs.

I. A Blockbuster Tale of Abuse at Apple

One of the toughest critiques on Apple came in the form of Mike Daisey's monologue about his trip to China and incognito tours of Apple-centric factories located in the city of Shenzhen, China.  The writer/actor's wild tale gained national attentioned after Chicago Public Media (CPM) and Public Radio International (PRI) aired a segment of This American Life entitled "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory".

After that radio broadcast to millions, Mr. Daisey became a hot commodity.  Where as past reports had revealed one or two unsavory incidents, Mr. Daisey reportedly encountered nearly everything stated to date, from suffering underage workers, to secret unions.

Suddenly news networks were clamoring for interviews and Mr. Daisey was performing his shocking monologue titled "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" to sold out crowds in New York City.



This American Life recalls one incident writing [PDF]:

[CPM/PRI]...the most dramatic point in Daisey’s monologue – apparently onstage it’s one of the most emotional moments in the show. It comes at this union meeting.

Daisey describes an old man with leathery skin who used to work at foxconn … making metal enclosures for ipads and laptops. … he says the man got his hand caught in a metal press, and that it was now a twisted claw. He says he got no medical attention, and then Foxconn fired him for working too slowly.
 
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And when he says this, I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China. …. He's never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, "he says it's a kind of magic."

In another part of his monologue Mr. Daisey says:

[CLIP] Mike Daisey: There's a group that's talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It's great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them…can't even pick up a glass.

Now CPM/PRI, who is known for their awarding winning standard of journalism, says they forced Mr. Daisey to a vow that he would abide by journalistic standards.  They also fact checked his story, and given that all the elements were widely reported, they ran with it.  They tried to get in touch with the translator on Mr. Daisey's tour -- in the monologue he referred to her as "Cathy", but in the program he told CPM/PRI that her name was actually Anne and that she was no longer responding to phone calls.  CPM/PRI bought the excuse.

II. Suspicions Arise

However, when Rober Schmitz -- a PRI/CPM Chinese correspondent for the public radio program Marketplace -- heard the program he immediately became suspicious.  Elements of the report didn't stack up.  It was the little details that clued in Mr. Schmitz, who lives in Shanghai, that something foul was afoot.  For example Mr. Daisey claimed in his monologue that security guards at the plant carried guns -- something Mr. Schmitz knew was illegal in China.  In China only the police and army can carry guns in public, under threat of stiff penalties.  

And then there was Mr. Daisey's tale of members of a secret union meeting at Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) coffeehouses.  Was it really feasible for employees who made $15-20 USD a day and worked lengthy hours to be sipping $4 USD lattes.  Things were adding up.

So Mr. Schmitz Google searched for the original name of the translator -- Cathy.  He found a translator in Shenzhen with the anglicized name "Cathy" Lee.  Contacting her, he discovered that indeed she had served as Mr. Daisey's translator on the trip.

But her account was far different from Mr. Daisey's.  Yes, they had toured plants posing as a translator and business person.  But the tour number was 3 plants, versus the dozen plus plants in Mr. Daisey's monologue.

Foxconn workers
Mr. Daisey's shocking account of poor labor conditions at Apple suppliers was heavily fictionalized. [Image Source: South China Weekly]

The guards did not have guns.  Mr. Daisey's guide has no recollection of ever meeting anyone who claimed to have been exposed to n-Hexane or who was "shaking uncontrollably".  To Cathy Lee's knowledge they never even encountered an underage worker.  She said that some workers -- females -- looked younger, but she says that's due to the racial features of the Chinese who Westerners often think make 20-something women look like teens.

And the man with the ruined hand?  They never met him.  Pure "fiction", Cathy Lee says.  

Overall the most important details of the monologue appeared to be exagerrated or outright fabricated.  So a shamed CPM/PRI plotted something they had never done before for the acclaimed This American Life program -- a retraction.

This American Life lead anchor Ira Glass comments:

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn't excuse the fact that we never should've put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors - our friends and colleagues - have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It's trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.

III. Monologue Author: "I'm going to lie to lots of people."

Mr. Daisey agreed to appear in the followup.  In the followup interview he amended some of his numbers to be closer to Cathy's.  But he was insistent that some details Cathy said were fiction were actually based on experience.  For example, he claimed to have talked to a young-looking female factory worker who in English conveyed that she was 13.  Cathy Lee said this is impossible -- he never talked to youthful employees in English and he never left her side.  Further, CPM/PRI notes that it is highly unprobable that a teenage factory worker would know English well enought to convey such thoughts or risk their hard-earned position to talk to a foreign "businessman".

Mike Daisey
Fame American monologist Mike Daisey is now a famed liar for his fictionalized account of Apple's labor conditions, which he portrayed as reality.
[Image Source: Mike Daisey via Now on Broadway]

Mr. Daisey argues his exagerrations were not lies, but necessary efforts (in his mind) to bring attention to important labor issues.  He comments:

Rob Schmitz: So you lied about that. That wasn’t what you saw.

Mike Daisey: I wouldn’t express it that way.

Rob Schmitz: How would you express it?

Mike Daisey: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone been talking about.

But CPM/PRI does not appear convinced.  It not only has retracted the story with strong apology, it closes on a seemingly damn excerpt from Mr. Daisey's best-selling monologue:

[CPM/PRI]:Cathy says some things from Daisey’s monologue were true: He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. They did pose as business people in the factories they visited. And before they did that, Daisey did have a conversation with her about his plan. She says this conversation probably happened on June 2nd when she first met Daisey.  He told her that he would pretend to be a businessman and he needed her help.  Here’s how he tells the story:

[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And she listens to this, and she says, but you are not a businessman.

And I say, that's true, I am not a businessman.

And she says, and you aren't going to buy their products.

I say, that's true, I'm not going to buy their products.

And she says, you will lie to them.

And I say, yes Cathy, I'm going to lie to lots of people.

(In another moment of his monologue he states, "The moments of our life where we're actually truly honest with another person are so f**king rare, that when they happen we usually end up married to that person."

Mike Daisey is married to Jean-Michele Gregory, a prominent New York City director [source].)

The sad reality is that this report will inevitably set back honest journalists who reported on past Apple labor issues.  One can only hope that in the ensuing reprieve Apple learns from the exposure of these lies, that it sticks to its promises of enforcing continuous supplier improvement.  CPM/PRI deserves some credit -- they may have been accidentally chosen to play the fool, but at least they weren't fooled twice.

Note:
An early version of this story incorrectly identified Mr. Daisey's wife, when quoting his monologue.  That reference has been removed.

Sources: This American Life [blog], [transcript], [podcast]



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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By Tony Swash on 3/18/2012 7:18:17 PM , Rating: -1
There is an underlying set of assumptions in your comment which is widespread which is that somehow the current situation in China and the other emerging economies is awful and can only be changed by changes in the developed economies. In reality the changes that will make a real difference can only occur inside the societies in question, the key is the development of democratic political institutions, a free civil society and in particular free trade unions. I think, and hope, those things will come in China and elsewhere but the road to them could be very bumpy.

We need to to locate the current situation in an historical context. For almost all of human history, and for almost everyone who has ever lived, life was, and and still is for countless millions, relentlessly short and nasty. Almost everyone who has ever lived have lived lives utterly constrained by poverty, disease, premature death and oppression. None of these bad things need explaining, they are the default condition of humanity. What needs explaining is how those things get removed, how and under what circumstances the mass of people can come to live longer, better, freer lives. If one looks at those societies that have made a transition from the conditions of mass poverty and human indignity to one of material wealth, longer and better fed lives, personal freedoms and human rights the paths they have taken are remarkably similar. A move away from a rural and peasant life and a move into cities (old saying 'city air makes you free'), away from agricultural work and a move to industrial production, a move from oppressive and dictatorial social systems to ones based on democracy and human rights. The journey almost always happens in that order. Building a democracy or ending poverty whilst being based on a subsistence peasant economy is almost impossible.

In the last couple of decades over a billion people have been lifted out of abject poverty. That is am amazing achievement. Average global life expectancy is now an astonishing 60 years. The progress in just my lifetime has achieved more to improve more people's lives than in all of prior history.

The journey from subsistence rural economies to modern urban industrial ones is difficult and inevitably involves wrenching changes for countless millions, disruption and confusion, exploitation and abuse. But it is a journey that must be made otherwise most of humanity will remain stuck in the dreadful default condition in which it has lived and suffered for all of history. It is a journey we should applaud.

We are living through a fantastic revolution in the human condition. By all means point out what can improved but don't miss the forest for the trees. The basic living condition of more people has significantly improved in the last 30 years than in any other period of history. Only the privileged think economic development is a bad thing. Progress has costs, so yes protest and highlight them, seek to ameliorate them, but don't start pretending that this great adventure of human progress that is unfolding in places like China is a 'bad thing'.

Moving from the default condition of humanity - subsistence peasant farming, grinding poverty, early death, oppressive and arbitrary political power - is not easy and has it costs but what is the alternative? Nobody, except a few pathetic, ignorant and privileged dreamers in the west, wants to live their lives as peasants. It's a horrible way to live. Everybody on the planet, except a few pathetic, ignorant and privileged dreamers in the west, wants to live lives just like those that the mass of ordinary people do in the west.

On the question of this specific story and the issue of Apple in all this, what seems to be missing is any acknowledgement of some basic facts:

a) The conditions of workers in factories making components for Apple are better than average, not only better than the conditions of Chinese factory workers in general but better than those working in similar enterprises and production facilties.

b) Jobs in factories such as those run by Foxconn are are hugely sought after because they offer a better standard of living and better life opportunities than the alternatives.

c) The development of modern competitive industrial production in China, as exemplified by companies like Foxconn, has very significantly raised the GDP and the standard of living of hundreds of millions Chinese people.

d) All of the outrage whipped up around the issue of the conditions of workers in Apple's Chinese supply chain has, it turns out, been based on deliberate lies designed to further someone's career. Shame on him.


By Iaiken on 3/18/2012 7:30:21 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
All of the outrage whipped up around the issue of the conditions of workers in Apple's Chinese supply chain has, it turns out, been based on deliberate lies designed to further someone's career. Shame on him.


Not all of them Tony Wash. Just because Foxconn has been exonerated from this one mans claims doesn't exonerate them from the heaps of corroborated reports from investigative journalists from around the world. Mr. Daisey being a lying sack of crap doesn't give Apple and Foxconn a free pass.


By StanO360 on 3/19/2012 12:09:37 PM , Rating: 2
No it doesn't give them a free pass, but I would doubt that anything Apple contracts for is not handled by slave shops, the quality would unlikely be there, the consistency needed.

But the earlier post is right, these people are upper income workers in China. Yes there are the new super-rich. But considering that China has HALF the GDP per capita of Mexico, the vast majority of Chinese are in miserable poverty (realizing that Mexico is almost a Second World country). You raise the question then are we not to do business with poor countries, I would say we certainly should. Ask the question, should we do countries with Communist countries I would say no. Where does China fit in? Where is everyone shouting about freedom of speech, religion, press, travel?


By fortiori on 3/19/2012 9:29:24 AM , Rating: 2
Crocodile tears? Care to qualify that remark?

You appear to be an advocate for the factory profiteers, while i take the other route. But maybe you're right, i mean, only a few of them are committing suicide, and the factory is nice and quiet after all... Yeah, they're probably just bored from all the quietness. And if it isn't boredom then they're clearly just looking for something wild and crazy to do during their five minute lunch break. But most likely they're just ungrateful louts. Killing themselves for the sole purpose of giving such a wonderful low key factory a bad name.

Good Lord Man. You're like cognitive dissonance in the flesh. Must be nice to never loose a wink of sleep over anything.


By fortiori on 3/19/2012 11:42:19 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
The crocodile tears are shed by those excited by a chance to knock Apple but who were, and remain, silent on the worse conditions in the supply chains of other companies or products that they happen to like.


And this is why i don't bother engaging in conversations online, thanks for reinforcing that little rule of mine. So this is the highest level of discourse one can expect while having a exchange online, eh? Kindergarten level, Apple is better than Samsung, immature, worthless tripe.

I figured it had something to do with the fact that i'm typing this from a computer which was probably built in a sweatshop in China, and thus am a predatory hypocrite, but no, we can't even attain that level of debate.

When you grow up and can have an adult conversation without viewing everything through the lens of juvenile fanboyism, get back to me.

quote:
The suicide rate in the Foxconn work force is lower than the national average suicide rate for China.


Apples to oranges. Show me a comparison of the suicide rate between the workers in a United States factory and the workers in one in China and we'll talk. (Preferably show me the ones where the folks feel compelled to do the Dutch while on the clock.)


By Keeir on 3/19/2012 12:37:55 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
Apples to oranges. Show me a comparison of the suicide rate between the workers in a United States factory and the workers in one in China and we'll talk. (Preferably show me the ones where the folks feel compelled to do the Dutch while on the clock.)


Idoicy.

American College Students kill themselves at 4 times the rate of these factory workers. (According to Wired)

The conditions at the factories might be aweful, but the suicide rate doesn't speak to that... unless you feel like its artifically low?

http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5625a5....

In the United States, the suicide rate is ~1 per 10,000 people every year.

Foxcon factories? ~1/100,000 workers per year.

Its not just lower, its dramatically lower.


By Rukkian on 3/19/2012 3:20:48 PM , Rating: 1
Until I read the last few points, I could not understand why you got downrated. I thought it was a very thought out, intelligent response.

Then you change back to Tony, and say that "d) All of the outrage whipped up around the issue of the conditions of workers in Apple's Chinese supply chain has, it turns out, been based on deliberate lies designed to further someone's career. Shame on him.".

Just because this one "journalist" embelished some, all of what he wrote about has been reported by many others (just not all at the same time by the same person). This does not mean that all of it was false, just that this one jackass is just that, and in the end made all of the other true reporters look bad.

I do agree with you that we cannot be the one's forcing our beliefs on their culture, or it will turn out just like the middle east with everybody resenting us even more. The populace of the country needs to rise up and help itself, but that will not happen overnight, and probably not even fully in my lifetime.


"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen














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