Even With Daisey’s Lies Peeled Away, Apple’s Rotten Core Exposed
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Apple’s brand glared in the media spotlight this past week, after the public learned that performance artist Mike Daisey’s theatrical rendering of the struggles of Apple factory workers contained false claims—painfully exposed on an episode of the radio program This American Life. But if one fundamental truth has emerged from the scandal surrounding Daisey’s dramatic fudging, it’s that the lived reality of many Chinese workers is undoubtedly bleak—no embellishment needed.
Daisey’s personal account is gratuiously peppered with fabrications, but the story of systematic exploitation is essentially true. For years various watchdog groups have tried to hold Apple accountable for harsh working conditions in China, which have been linked to workplace-related suicides and health hazards. Since a number of young workers killed themselves in 2010, the consumer advocacy campaign Make IT Fair, together with the Hong Kong-based Students Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), have documented systematic abuses: exhausting hours, an oppressive, militaristic workplace culture and, despite conciliatory pay hikes, extremely low wages in comparison to the tremendous corporate profits and brutal working conditions.
It should be noted, however, that Daisey’s " dramatic license" was debunked largely through the real findings of intrepid investigations by advocates and professional reporters, which some commentators have highlighted amid the media fallout. As part of its “Retraction” episode, in fact, TAL interviewed New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg about the real story behind Daisey’s fictions.
On the reported widespread violations of a 60-hour weekly cap on working hours, Duhigg tells host Ira Glass, Apple claims workers volunteer for this excess work:
Duhigg: They say, "Look, one of the reasons why there is so much overtime that's inappropriate and, in some places, is illegal, is because the workers themselves are demanding that overtime."
Now, workers don't always say that. What workers often say is that they feel coerced into doing overtime, that if they didn't do overtime when it's asked of them, that they wouldn't get any overtime at all, and that financially they would suffer as a result.
This is the kind of more nuanced, day-to-day exploitation that Foxconn workers face--not so sensational, but nonetheless driven by global economic forces.
Li Qiang, head of the New York-based China Labor Watch, told In These Times that in terms of the conditions Daisey described, basically, "What he said about working conditions is true." He added, "Through this kind of media reporting, maybe more artists or journalists, or others will go to China to investigate the real circumstances in Chinese factories.... This way, this issue can generate more public debate."
While Apple has touted a new partnership with the third-party monitoring organization Fair Labor Association, many critics remain wary that Apple will continue to fail the workers at the dregs of the supply chain. Even worse, Apple might turn the scandal into a marketing opportunity, polishing its reputation with a dab of “corporate social responsibility” measures.
Make IT Fair recently denounced the FLA partnership as “a mere PR stunt,” citing comments by FLA president Auret van Heerden praising Apple facilities as “way, way above the average of the norm.” Activists call on Apple and other industry leaders to adopt more stringent ethical codes, which protect the environment from damaging extraction of raw materials, honor collective bargaining rights, and protect workers and their communities from discrimination and rights abuses.