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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.

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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By Tony Swash on 3/19/2012 7:43:50 AM , Rating: -1
So... using slave labor to build our toys is totally copacetic, cuz like, that's just like the human condition man, and we can't do anything to change that man, so let's just profit off of it as much as we can man, and not give two shits about the slaves who do all the work man.

Survival of the fittest man, or at least, those lucky enough to be born in a developed country man.

You're adorable.

More crocodile tears and a misrepresentation of what I said. You and Mike Daisey are two peas in a pod.

Meanwhile in the real world here is what the situation of the 'slaves' is:

Reuters 15/2/2012

Working conditions at Chinese manufacturing plants where Apple Inc's iPads and iPhones are made are far better than those at garment factories or other facilities elsewhere in the country, according to the head of a non-profit agency investigating the plants.

The Fair Labor Association (FLA) is beginning a study of the working conditions of Apple's top eight suppliers in China, following reports of worker suicides, a plant explosion and slave-like conditions at one of those suppliers, Foxconn Technology Group.

Auret van Heerden, president of the FLA offered no immediate conclusions on the working conditions, but he noted that boredom and alienation could have contributed to the stress that led some workers to take their own lives.

In addition to Foxconn, FLA investigators will later visit facilities of Quanta Computer Inc, Pegatron Corp, Wintek Corp and other suppliers, who are notoriously tight-lipped about their operations.

After his first visits to Foxconn, van Heerden said, "The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm."

He spent the past several days visiting Foxconn plants to prepare for the study.

"I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory," he said. "So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory. . It's more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps."

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
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.

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
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.)


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?

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.

"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." -- Scientology founder L. Ron. Hubbard

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