Foxconn Indicted on Stage

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After years of covering Apple, I figured any play called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" sounded like fun. And it is fun, with lots of laughs and anecdotes and insights about Apple’s history. But it is also an indictment of worker neglect by Apple’s Chinese manufacturing partners and Apple itself. It also fingers the complicit acceptance by buyers of consumer electronics (not only from Apple). So it was particularly striking that I saw Mike Daisey’s play the same weekend I edited a couple of stories about an explosion at the Foxconn facilities in Chengdu.

Daisey’s two-hour monologue is in turns funny, insightful and serious. He is a storyteller, and he relates the early creative marketing efforts of the two Steves – covering the infamous blue boxes that enabled free phone calls, the Scully years, and Apple’s ups and downs until its recent resounding iSuccesses. He mixes in the story of his trip to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, where he talked with hundreds of employees about working conditions that would not be tolerated in the U.S. Daisey met employees as young as 12 and 13, whose small hands assemble iPhones and iPads. He charges that Foxconn forces workers to routinely log 12- and 14-hour and even longer shifts to meet demand. Daisey notes that Foxconn’s answer to worker suicides was to install nets near the top of its buildings (although PC World and others have also reported that the company cites some changes in conditions and resources as well).

Daisey also posed as an American businessman, enduring several sessions of Death by PowerPoint described with levity that contrasted with his somber description of factory tours revealing cramped working quarters and even more crowded worker dorms (depicted as 10-by-10-foot rooms containing 10 or 15 or more stacked cots).

I can’t fact-check all his allegations, but he correctly describes Foxconn as "the biggest company you’ve never heard of," which makes 50 percent of all the electronics in the world. The Shenzhen facilities alone house nearly 500,000 workers – a volume better grasped by learning it has 25 around-the-clock cafeterias that each seat 10,000. Did you know your iPhone came from there? And Apple is not Foxconn’s only customer; count Hewlett-Packard, Dell and other U.S. electronics giants.

Courtesy: Mike Daisey
Daisey fingers Jobs as an undisputed "visionary" on one hand and an "asshole" on the other, whose legendary volatility and intensity has been described before – although Daisey’s reference to Jobs as "not a micro-manager, he’s a nano-manager" is a particularly poetic turn of phrase. He credits Apple’s success with Jobs’s willingness to "knife the baby" – kill the project that won’t fly, or change the product line in order to push a new one to even greater success. And he charges that buyers – including himself, a self-described Apple fanboy -- know simply that the gadgets are "made in China" but don’t have a clue what’s behind that.

Daisey urges his audience to take action – encouraging Apple and Jobs specifically to seek more socially responsible practices and encourage the same in its manufacturing partners. He cites work by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), which released a study of Foxcomm’s practices earlier this month.

"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" just concluded a run at the Seattle Rep and goes next to Sydney, Australia and then New York. It premiered earlier this year in Berkeley where one of the audience members was reportedly Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who told the performer that he would never look at his gadgets the same again. Maybe none of us should.

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