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Apple, Accustomed to Profits and Praise, Faces Outcry for Labor Practices at Chinese Factories

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Protesters visited a half-dozen Apple stores around the world to deliver petitions calling for reforms in the working conditions at factories run by Apple’s suppliers in China. The protests come on the heels of recent revelations of harsh conditions and onerous work environments at Apple’s controversial Chinese supplier Foxconn, where more than a dozen employees have committed suicide. We’re joined by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who helped break the story about the human costs of Apple products for workers in China. We’re also joined by Mike Daisey, whose acclaimed one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” is based partly on his visits to Apple’s Chinese factories and his interviews with the workers there. “I want Apple to take real responsibility,” Daisey says. “They have the resources to change this overnight.” [includes rush transcript]

[On March 16, the public radio program This American Life retracted the program that included excerpts from Mike Daisey’s monologue, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” saying, “we learned that many of Mike Daisey’s experiences in China were fabricated.” The transcript of the hour long retraction is available here. Daisey’s response can be found on his blog, where he says, “I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece…”]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In consumer news, we turn now to iPhones, iPads and iPods—not what they do, but how they are manufactured. Yesterday, protesters visited a half-dozen Apple stores around the world to deliver petitions calling for reforms in the working conditions at factories run by Apple’s suppliers in China. A demonstration at Apple’s Grand Central Terminal store in New York City drew a dozen people, who peacefully handed over a petition with 250,000 signatures to an Apple store manager. Shelby Knox, the director for Change.org, led the effort to collect the signatures.

SHELBY KNOX: We’re asking Apple to make an ethical iPhone. Factories in China and the countries that they’re made suffer horrible labor conditions. And so, we’re asking them to live up to their ethical supplier agreement, make sure that they are under good working conditions, that they’re not using toxins that harm them neurologically, and that they take care of those people as well as they would want their customers to be taken care of.

AMY GOODMAN: The protests come on the heels of a recent New York Times investigation into the harsh conditions, onerous work environments at Apple’s controversial Chinese supplier, Foxconn. According to the reports, workers assembling electronic devices often work seven days a week, live in crowded dorms. Some say they’re forced to stand so long their legs swell until they can hardly walk. The reports also claim under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and some workers have suffered deaths from explosions and maimings. Over a dozen Foxconn employees have committed suicide. According to the New York Times, the company’s suppliers also have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records.

This is what one Foxconn worker told reporters about her experience. She prefered to remain anonymous, so as not to lose her job.

FOXCONN WORKER: [translated] It’s so boring. I can’t bear it anymore. Every day was like, I get off from work, and I go to bed. I get up in the morning, and I go to work. It became my daily routine, and I almost felt like I was some kind of animal.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a Chinese worker at Foxconn, Apple’s controversial Chinese supplier. Meanwhile, Foxconn is battling to contain a security breach after hackers joined the mounting protest over iPhone factory conditions by leaking the login details of its entire staff.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We invited Apple to join us on our show, but they declined. The company did, however, send us this official statement: “We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made. Our suppliers must live up to these requirements if they want to keep doing business with Apple. Every year Apple inspects more factories, going deeper into the supply chain and raising the bar for our suppliers.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Charles Duhigg, who helped break this story about the human costs of Apple products for workers in China. He’s an award-winning staff reporter for the New York Times.

We’re also joined by Mike Daisey, who performs a one-man show called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The show is now at the Public Theater in New York. He has visited factories in China that make Apple products and interviewed the workers.

Charles Duhigg, Mike Daisey, welcome to Democracy Now! Charles, let’s start with you, your findings, if you could expand on what prompted you to write this and what you were most surprised by in your research.

CHARLES DUHIGG: Actually, we started a series on focusing on Apple as a lens by which to look at how temporary economics, and particularly American economics, are working now about a year ago. And an important part of that, as we were talking to people who worked with Apple, was the reason why Apple can manufacture these amazing devices now, that appear almost as quickly as their dreamed up, is because manufacturing has been located in—relocated in Asia. And the scale and capacity of manufacturing there is amazing. You can send over plans for an idea and, literally, within weeks have that idea become real.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin one of your pieces by President Obama meeting with Steve Jobs in a group of people. And talk about what Obama asked Jobs.

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, one of the things that President Obama asked was, is it ever possible to bring back those jobs to the United States, to make iPhones in the U.S.? And what Steve Jobs said was—I think accurately—those jobs are never coming back. And the reason why isn’t just because workers are cheaper in China, although that—they are cheaper in China; it’s because China has established a huge competitive advantage over the U.S. There are supply chains that exist in China and Asia now which the U.S. simply can’t replicate. And there’s a system of labor there that allows factories to hire 3,000 people overnight or, as Mike can speak to, create facilities that house 250,000 workers and change them in a couple of hours or a couple of days from one product to another. It’s an amazing, amazing manufacturing capacity that’s grown up overseas—with harsh costs associated with it, but that makes it possible for us to get a brand new iPhone every single year.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and I wanted to ask you about that capacity, because we hear a lot about the post-industrial society, but in reality, when you’re talking about these plants that have 100,000 workers, they dwarf anything that the old classic River Rouge plant of Henry Ford had created.

CHARLES DUHIGG: That’s exactly right. America lives—might live in a post-industrial society, but we do so because other countries are entering their industrial society, and they’re entering it at a scale, at a speed, at a perfection of production, that was completely undreamed of in the United States in the past. And I’m sure many of your audience, many people, they carry an iPhone in your pocket. It’s a wonderful device. It’s an amazing device. And it exists only really because there is this nation that can produce it so quickly and so efficiently.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Daisey, first of all, congratulations on your one-man show. I saw it last night. It is shocking and stunning.

MIKE DAISEY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: You went to China.


AMY GOODMAN: You talked to these workers. Describe the breadth of the place and what you found when you talked to these workers.

MIKE DAISEY: Well, I think this conversation is fantastic. I think that it does feel like we’re in a post-industrial society, so this place is all the engines we need to run everything we make. The scale is really staggering. You’re talking about rooms that hold 20,000, 25,000, 30,000 workers, in enormous rooms where people work silently. I think one of the things we don’t think about a lot is that—when things are made by hand. When the cost of labor is unbelievably cheap, the most effective way to exploit that is to assemble by hand. So, despite the fact that our devices are so advanced, once the parts of that device are made, they’re assembled by hand. So these things that seem so advanced—and are so advanced—the supply chain that’s evolved has a component in it that involves many, many small hands putting your devices together in a row, one after another, despite the fact that your Apple product looks so pristine. In fact, one of the last steps is to put a sticker over it that makes it look as though no human has ever touched your Apple product.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The reason why so many American factories left the United States—as the industrial workers became unionized, they were able to increase the pay and better their working conditions. What—when you started talking to the Chinese workers there, what about the labor unions? What about the ability of the workers to organize in these huge plants? Why has that not occurred at a more rapid and a more developed pace?

MIKE DAISEY: Well, I mean, there’s a really simple explanation. Labor organization in China is illegal. If you organize a union in China that is separate from the Communist Party, and those are largely fronts, in terms of working conditions, you go to prison if you’re caught by the government. So, that largely shuts down any sort of serious effort at labor organization. I think that’s part and parcel of the landscape. I mean, there’s a reason why this environment works so well for the needs of creating a hyperinflated, hyper-growing industrial revolution, and that’s that you have a base of workers who live under an authoritarian government and can be controlled. The circumstances are very controlled. And so, I think that’s part of the equation that we don’t like to look at.

AMY GOODMAN: How the company deals with the suicides, and what actually is happening? What are Chinese workers doing?

MIKE DAISEY: Well, there was a series of suicides at Foxconn where, month after month, workers would go up to the roofs of the buildings and throw themselves off the buildings, in a very public manner. The thing about this is that the number of suicides is not the issue so much as the cluster. The fact that people were choosing to kill themselves in an incredibly public manner is really relevant and has to do, I think, with pressures of the production line. It’s a very intense environment. And the people who come into those jobs are often in a very blessed position. They’ve come from the rural areas, and they’re making a new life for themselves. But they have to send money back to many, many dependents back where they come from. So they’re in a perfect position to be exploited, like they don’t feel, in some cases, like they can leave. And it can be very tough.

AMY GOODMAN: And how the company dealt with the suicides?

MIKE DAISEY: Well, Foxconn chose to deal with the suicides, in the period when I was visiting—what they had done, after month after month of suicides, was put up nets.



AMY GOODMAN: To catch the bodies.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I wanted to ask Charles Duhigg about Foxconn, because one of the abilities of American companies now is to have these foreign suppliers, so that they have this wall, supposedly, between their own employees and employment conditions and these contractors. Who is Foxconn? Who owns it? How did it arise? And what is its importance today in China?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Foxconn is hugely important not only in China—it’s the largest employer in China—Foxconn is important around the world. So, Foxconn—and in some ways, it’s a remarkable story. It started—it’s owned by a Taiwanese gentleman named Terry Gou, who started in Taiwan rebuilding circuit boards in, essentially, a—one little sort of storefront with a couple of other people, very, very low-level labor. And he’s built that now into the largest electronics manufacturer in the world. Forty percent of all electronics sold are assembled by Foxconn. He employs about 1.2 million people in China, so he’s among the largest employers.

And more importantly, the psychological impact of Foxconn is tremendous throughout Asia, because, as Terry Gou has become one of the richest people in the world, he’s shown that there is this path towards enormous wealth creation by taking very, very simple tasks, automating them with humans, and then going and competing for contracts.

And so, one person I talked to, who was a former Apple employee, had told me that basically Apple helped make Foxconn real. You know, they were a large supporter of the company, and have been for many years, because they need Foxconn. Without Foxconn—and there’s only really one or two other companies that can do what Foxconn does—you can’t produce 300 million iPhones. You need a partner like this that you can give designs to, and they can start it rolling out a week later. And Foxconn does it amazingly. Now, conditions inside the plants are fairly harsh, as Mike so eloquently describes. But it is—it’s a new type of company that really we haven’t seen in history.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Apple’s statement on labor and human rights posted on its website. It says, quote, “Apple prohibits practices that threaten the rights of workers — even when local laws and customs permit such practices. We’ve taken action toward ending excessive recruitment fees, preventing the hiring of underage workers, and prohibiting discriminatory policies at our suppliers. As the first technology company to be admitted to the Fair Labor Association, Apple is setting a new standard in transparency and oversight.” Charles Duhigg, your response?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, I think—I think that’s all true. I mean, Apple is enormously well-meaning. I’ve spoken to a number of people who currently work at Apple and who have previously worked at Apple on supplier responsibility. And what everyone—

AMY GOODMAN: Under-age workers?


AMY GOODMAN: Under-age workers?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, what everyone has said is—I’m sorry, executives, not worker—not the under-age workers.

AMY GOODMAN: No, no. I didn’t mean “have you talked to under-age workers,” but I know, Michael Daisey, you have, what about this issue of saying—

CHARLES DUHIGG: How do you reconcile, right, that—

AMY GOODMAN: —we do not hire—we don’t hire under-age workers?

CHARLES DUHIGG: How do you reconcile that conditions on the ground seem so different from what they’re saying? And when I talk to executives, what they tell me is this: Apple is serious about this. Apple has the largest auditing program in the electronics industry. They have some of the toughest rules. But that there’s a conflict within Apple, which is that when enforcing those rules, when getting really, really tough with suppliers, conflicts with creating the best products possible, with turning out those products as fast as possible, with maintaining relationships with very important suppliers like Foxconn, then the discipline around that, the dedication breaks down. And that’s, for instance—a lot of what we know about under-age workers, a lot of what we know about bonded labor, we only know because Apple went into the factories and told us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Daisey has told us a lot, right, by going there. Michael, talk about, first—I mean, you talk about this in your play at the Public Theater. You thought no one would talk to you, that people would be terrified. And you went there with a translator.

MIKE DAISEY: Yeah. Well, I mean, when I arrived, it was May and June of 2010, and so it was a very intense time. It was right when the suicides were happening a lot. And because I am not a journalist, because I work as a monologist, I have the ability, when people ask why I’m asking these questions, this strange American who’s appeared out of nowhere and is just standing around, I’m able to say—

AMY GOODMAN: In a Hawaiian shirt.

MIKE DAISEY: And in a Hawaiian shirt. I’m able to say very honestly that I’m a storyteller, and I just want to hear their stories. And I would ask them to show me what they do every day, like I’d ask them to pantomime the motions that they make when they’re working on the line. And, you know, you’d find people who would talk to you, because people, when you ask them about the steps of their day, will sometimes open up and tell you about their jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did they tell you?

MIKE DAISEY: And what they told me is that the image that happens inside of Foxconn, versus the official story of Foxconn—and, I think, a lens through Apple—they don’t line up. And a lot of it is because there is a strong vested interest in Foxconn to not audit cleanly. Like, one of the things that was told to me is that, when—at the time that I visited, when there is going to be an inspection, an outside inspection, that Foxconn always knows that there’s going to be an inspection. And before the inspection, everything is turned over. Absolutely everything is gone over completely. And they take the precaution, at that time, of pulling everyone from that production line and then putting the oldest-looking workers they have on that line, which tells me that they aren’t even completely confident of their internal processes, at least when I was there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Charles Duhigg, following up on that, you reported that the hundreds of audits that Apple has done every year, even with this preparation by Foxconn, apparently, still is able to document repeated violations of their own standards.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Yet they don’t act. So they do know, and they just are refusing to act, no matter what they say that they would like to have better working conditions at their plants.

CHARLES DUHIGG: Yeah, what Apple says—and you have to take Apple at their word, because this is a major corporation, they usually don’t lie about stuff like this—is that they say every single time they find a violation inside a supplier, that they mandate that a change is made and a management system is put in place in order to prevent that from occurring again. The difficulty is, when you look at the aggregate statistics that Apple publishes every year, we see the same violations occurring again and again and again. There is not enough information in the data for us to say, this one facility seems to be breaking your rule again and again and again. Perhaps everyone is improving, but the pool of inspected facilities is growing, and that’s hiding the upward trend in the improvements.

MIKE DAISEY: It should be said that one of the reasons—

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Daisey.

MIKE DAISEY: One of the reasons we don’t know, like we can’t do analysis on that data, is that Apple has released its list of suppliers, which was wonderful, and I had called for that, but they neglected to connect specific suppliers to violations that they discovered, which makes it very difficult for anyone else to check any of the work that’s happening. There’s a lot of that, where Apple makes a gesture and says a lot about how well-meaning it is, but I do not see the follow-through where the transparency would exist, because Apple, as a company, sort of thrives on a lack of transparency.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, Michael, in your monologue, you talked about the man with the claw.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this worker.

MIKE DAISEY: This is a worker I spoke with whose hand had been maimed in a metal press. And he said he had not received any medical treatment, and his hand healed this way. And then he had been too slow when he came back to work, and he was fired for being too slow, and then, now worked at a woodworking plant. And he had been working on the line building iPads. And I spoke with—when he told me this, I showed him my iPad, which had just come out right before I went to Shenzhen. And I showed him the iPad, and it was the first time he had seen an iPad in its completed state, because the people on the production line are often very carved off. Each step is very, very minute. The devices are very expensive, of course, and so they’re closely monitored. And so, no one has an opportunity to even handle them, in a way, really, outside of your individual step. And so, I turned it on for him and showed it to him, this thing that he had actually been maimed building. And it was his first time moving the icons back and forth. And he had a very human reaction, which is, he thought it was beautiful, you know? Which I think is understandable, because Apple does make beautiful devices.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Charles Duhigg, the actual working conditions at these plants, the hours that the workers work, the salaries that they make?

CHARLES DUHIGG: It, by American standards, would be almost unconscionable. So, most workers inside the large plants—small plants are usually worse than large plants—but inside the large plants, they’re usually inside the factory for at least 12 hours a day. There’s some breaks in there. The shifts themselves are about 10 hours. But very often—and Foxconn says this isn’t accurate, so I need to caveat that, but our reporting indicates that it is—very often, people are asked to work two shifts in a row. So it’s not uncommon for someone to spend an entire day within a Foxconn plant.

The amount that they earn, it’s a hard number to give, because the Chinese government keeps the currency of China low, so that it sounds—so that it sounds lower than what they’re earning. And it is a good wage. There’s a lot of—there’s a lot of people who migrate from villages into cities. They work for 10 years. They earn enough money that they can go back to their village and open up a small store or some other type of company. But by American standards, it’s $17 a day to $21 a day. And by American standards, it’s an enormously, enormously low amount of money. It is not a quality of life that we’ve become accustomed to. And it’s not a working condition that Americans would tolerate or that would be legal inside this country.

AMY GOODMAN: The Indypendent reporter Arun Gupta had just had a piece published on AlterNet, says, “Researchers with the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) say [that] legions of vocational and university students, [some] as young as 16, are forced to take months’-long 'internships' in Foxconn’s mainland China factories assembling Apple products. The details of the internship program paint a far more disturbing picture,” that he puts out, “than the Times does of how Foxconn” works. He says—talks about “'the Chinese hell factory,' treats its workers, relying on public humiliation, military discipline, forced labor and physical abuse as management tools to hold down costs and extract maximum profits for Apple.” Charles?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Yeah, we don’t refer to any place as a “hell factory.” But the point—

AMY GOODMAN: No, no, he was talking about—

CHARLES DUHIGG: But the point that he makes is a fair one. Some of the tactics that are used by Foxconn and other companies throughout China is, if you are late, if you violate one of the small rules, some of the punishment is that you have to copy down quotations from the chairman of Foxconn, you have to write out confessions explaining why you were late and promising never to do it again. A number of the factories have morning military drills, where you have to line up in formation and remain very still or do calisthenics. It is not a good working environment. It is not a working environment that, by American standards, anyone would tolerate.

And the point that you brought up of the internships, this is a real problem. China is this incredibly developing country right now, right? Over the last 10 years, it’s a nation that has literally completely transformed itself. And what is going on is that, as capitalism becomes more of the norm, the abuses of capitalism, that we’ve managed to ameliorate throughout the West and the United States, are very, very much in place in China. And as a result, there are people suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but Michael Daisey, a sheet is given out at the end of your play about what people should do. You have performed this hundreds of times, your play, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. What do you want to see happen?

MIKE DAISEY: I want Apple to take real responsibility. Apple is one of the most innovative companies in the world. They have an incredible supply chain. I think Charles is right about exactly what’s wrong at Apple. I think people are well-meaning. But the people in charge of supplier responsibility, if it ever conflicts in any way with profit for Apple, in any real way, they are not given the resources they need. Apple has $100 billion — that’s with a “b” — in the bank right now. They have the resources to change this overnight.

AMY GOODMAN: Apple surpassed Exxon as the company with the highest profits. For a few days, they had more money than the U.S. government?

MIKE DAISEY: Yes, in the bank right now. Liquid, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Michael Daisey. Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, is his one-man show at the Public Theater in New York. And Charles Duhigg, award-winning staff reporter for the New York Times who helped break the story about the human costs of Apple products for workers in China.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the crusading Spanish judge, Garzón, has been convicted. We’ll talk with Human Rights Watch’s Reed Brody. Stay with us.

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