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Sunday, October 02, 2011

Apple, labor, technology, consumer responsibility and The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Now through October 15th, there's a contest to win tickets to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at The Public Theater...and a $250 Apple gift certificate. The show is largely about the working conditions at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where numerous electronics are made, including Apple products, the company that's the focus of the show. I questioned @PublicTheaterNY on the (il)logic of that on Twitter:

I still think it's an odd choice, especially after one sees the show. Yet they are right; technology is part of most of our worlds, certainly anyone reading this. I had my iPhone on my trip to Vermont and one of my little cousins said, "You're on that thing a lot. It's like your friend." She was totally right. I don't know what I'd do without my iPhone or my laptop, how I'd work or communicate with people. I wasn't suggesting that nobody buy any Apple products, just that the juxtaposition struck me as off message.

From The Newcastle Herald:

Daisey reserves particular disdain for the Apple fanboys who accuse him of singling out Apple when the rest of the technology industry is just as guilty, and of ignoring the fact that the suicide rate at the Foxconn factories is lower than the reported official average in China.

"These Apple fanboys have the most amazing moral and ethical equivalency that I've seen," said Daisey.

"All they would have to do is raise the blinders just a little bit and see with human eyes and they could be an enormous force for actually getting real change to happen. So when they choose instead to remain children playing with toys it's infantilism of the highest order."

He said the official suicide rate figures released by the Chinese government cannot be relied upon and that if there was a spate of suicides at a Western factory - as occurred at Foxconn recently - there would be a mammoth public outcry.

"It's an unbelievably pathetic defence to say my company's responsible for atrocities but so are other companies," he said, adding Apple should lead the industry into a more ethical approach.

"Apple has long prided itself on being a leader, it speaks constantly about being a leader in the field, they're very proud of that and they take huge advantage of it in their PR. Well, this is what comes with being a leader ... suck it up and start acting like one."

I'll be posting more about my reaction to seeing the show in January, and why I'm seeing it again, and if you're in New York, I strongly encourage you to see it (use the code iFriend for $50 tickets). It runs from October 11th to November 14th. The vividness of the imagery about the working conditions, lack of union organizing and underage labor is hard to ignore after you've seen the show.

But the idea of awareness makes me wonder what we, as consumers, are meant to do about this issue, aside from thinking about it. Thinking about it is important, but part of my impetus to see the show again is to figure out what to do with that information. It's not The Public Theater's or anyone else's job to tell me what to do with that; I have to figure that out. I've brought it up with people who were considering buying iPads, wondering about the delays.

I will say I have been thinking about it ever since I saw the show, especially when I wound up buying a new laptop at the Apple Store in Emeryville the next day. It was an uncomfortable feeling, like I was directly supporting those kind of working conditions. At the same time, I know that so many of the products I wear, use, consume, are likely made in awful conditions. Sara Bongiorni wrote a memoir, A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy, I haven't read yet, but that's about precisely this:

I don't know the answers, or any answer. I don't think ignorance is an answer, but what to do with that knowledge is a tougher question.

See also:

Today's New York Times interview about the show

"Why Apple is Nervous About Foxconn," Bloomberg Businessweek

From "Fire Breaks Out at Foxconn Plant,", about a different Chinese Foxconn factory:

The fire was first spotted by a microblogger at Chinese Internet portal and picked up by Sina's news service. Coincidentally the day before, Chinese officials ordered police to engage more in "public security microblogging" but only through government-monitored channels.

In the last 12 months, Foxconn's reputation has taken a nosedive thanks to reports of explosions, worker suicides, and alleged slave-like working conditions. In May it briefly shut down operations after a deadly explosion in Chengdu, prompting Foxconn and its partners to pledge to make a number of reforms at the manufacturer's facilities. A recent report from watchdog group Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), however, found that most employees are working long hours for little pay, battling exposure to dust and harmful chemicals, and undergoing "military style" training sessions.

And Foxconn suicides has its own Wikipedia entry, separate from Foxconn. From 2009, about the suicide of Sun Dan-yong: "Fell from apartment building[18][20] after losing an iPhone prototype in his possession.[21] Prior to death, he was beaten and his residence searched by Foxconn employees.[21]"

Joel Johnson wrote a cover story for Wired about visiting Foxconn and summarized it with a response I've seen a lot of: it's not as bad as other jobs in China.

That 17 people have committed suicide at Foxconn is a tragedy. But in fact, the suicide rate at Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant remains below national averages for both rural and urban China, a bleak but unassailable fact that does much to exonerate the conditions at Foxconn and absolutely nothing to bring those 17 people back.

But the work itself isn’t inhumane—unless you consider a repetitive, exhausting, and alienating workplace over which you have no influence or authority to be inhumane. And that would pretty much describe every single manufacturing or burger-flipping job ever.

For me, though, the key point in that article was this one, which I think says infinitely more about what Foxconn thinks of their workers than any other detail in that piece, bolding mine:

Although the company disputes some cases, evidence gathered from news reports and other sources indicates that 17 Foxconn workers have killed themselves in the past half decade. What had seemed to be a series of isolated incidents was becoming an appalling trend. When one jumper left a note explaining that he committed suicide to provide for his family, the program of remuneration for the families of jumpers was canceled.

So, no, I have no answers. I do think awareness is important, but as I type this on the laptop I bought in Emeryville in January, I don't know that my awareness is moot if I'm not trying to be part of the solution.

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