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"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" How One Artist Is Pushing Apple to Change

Mike Daisey's one-man show has galvanized public opinion against the electronic giant's labor practices.
 
 
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If you would seek proof of that famous Margaret Mead adage: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” look at what’s happening as more and more people protest Apple Inc.’s labor practices in China.

Take it one step further: if you should ever doubt the impact a solitary artist can have against injustice, meet Mike Daisey.

Daisey is a monologist, a creator of one-man shows, whose performance piece “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” has jolted audiences into action as he parallels the obsessions of Jobs, the recently deceased former CEO of Apple; our consumer-driven lust for iPods, iPhones, and iPads and the human toll taken by their manufacture.

Apple – like virtually every other electronics manufacturer – subcontracts much of the work that goes into building its devices to companies in Asia. One of them, Foxconn Technology, is the largest private employer in China. Its factories there and in other parts of the world put together approximately 40 percent of all the consumer electronics devices on the planet. Their largest facility, Foxconn City, is in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, and employs nearly a quarter of a million workers.

As the  New York Times reported late last month:

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some 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 and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors. More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu [the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China], killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.

The explosions were due to accumulations of aluminum dust from the polishing of thousands upon thousands of iPad cases. There have been more than a dozen suicides as well – part of Foxconn’s solution was to install nets around buildings to catch jumpers – and accounts of workers fired after their hands were made useless by repetitive stress injuries.

Many have reported on the working conditions at Foxconn, but it’s Mike Daisey’s one-man play, media coverage of his work and the broadcast of a one-hour version on the public radio series This American Life that seem to have galvanized public opinion.

Physically large and in charge, Mike Daisey’s performance style suggests a peculiar combination of the late Spalding Gray and Lewis Black of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He sits at a table on a bare stage with some notes and a glass of water and simply tells his story; at times hysterically funny, at others, poignant, withering and accusatory. Some might find his manner a bit loud and overbearing: the night we were there last fall, media moguls Barry Diller and David Geffen were sitting a couple of rows in front of us and walked out after the first fifteen minutes or so. (Don’t try to deny it: we have your ticket stubs.)

But maybe it wasn’t Daisey’s profanity and mild bellicosity that got under their skin and instead, some simple truths. Daisey begins by detailing his own passion for all things Apple (“I am an Apple fanboy, I am a worshiper in the cult of Mac.”) and slowly segues into stories from the company’s history and its increasing dependence on Chinese labor. Daisey traveled to China to see it all firsthand.

 
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