Siri, sweatshops and suicide

[Added 3/19/12.  Mike Daisey is not a reliable source of information about Apple Computer and its Chinese suppliers.  Click on Retracting “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” to understand why.]

Apple Computer’s new iPhone 4S has an artificial intelligence program called Siri that responds to the spoken word.  If you asked Siri Software where it was manufactured, you’d get an answer something like this.

Siri, where do you come from?

I, Siri, was designed by Apple in California.

Where were you manufactured?

I’m not allowed to say.


Good question.  Anything else I can do for you?

Actually there is no mystery.  Apple’s iPhone is manufactured in Shenzen, China, by Foxconn, in a huge complex employing 430,000 people, surrounded by huge nets to prevent employees from committing suicide by jumping off buildings.  Foxconn employs 1 million people worldwide, and makes about a third of the components used by Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and other electronics companies.

Shenzen was a small fishing village three decades ago when Deng Xiaoping designated it a special economic zone, where corporate enterprise would enjoy free rein.  Today it is a city of 14 million people, larger than New York City.

Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey, a stage performer, visited Foxconn last year.  He stood outside the factory gate and talked to workers, and then gained admittance by posing as a would-be purchaser of Foxconn products.  He talked to a young woman who turned out to be 13 years old.  She said she had many friends age 12, 13 and 14.  Child labor is illegal in China, but according to Daisey she said Foxconn doesn’t check ages, and makes sure that older workers are on duty whenever auditors come.

He saw factory floors with 20,000 to 30,000 workers in a single space.  They worked in absolute silence.  Not only was there no talking, there was no machinery noise because there was no machinery.  Everything was done by hand, including manipulation of components thinner than a single human hair.

Shifts were supposedly 12 hours a day, but he said workers told him 16-hour days were common when there was a rush order.  That is without a lavatory break, a coffee break or any other kind of break.  While Daisey was there in 2010, a Foxconn worker died from exhaustion working 34 hours without a break.  Everybody in the plant is under video surveillance on the factory floor, in the hallways and cafeterias and in their 12-by-12-foot dorm cubicles in which 12 to 15 bunks are stacked.

He saw workers in their mid-20s whose hands were disintegrated from making the same repetitive motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of time—like carpal tunnel syndrome, but orders of magnitude worse.  This could easily be fixed by rotating the job assignments each month, but this is not done.

Workers who are injured in industrial accidents receive no compensation.  He said he talked to a man whose hand was crushed in a machine.  The man was fortunate enough to find a job in a woodworking shop, where the employers are friendly and he only has to work a 70-hour week.

Steve Jobs is regarded as a kind of secular saint, but it was his decision that the wondrous new products he designed would be made not by Americans, but by stressed-out, low-paid workers in a company town.  Henry Ford paid Ford Motor Co. workers enough to afford to buy Ford cars.  None of the Foxconn workers in Shenzen can afford an iPhone or any of the other technological marvels they put together.  Of course Steve Jobs was no worse than Bill Gates, the great philanthropist, or any of the other electronics CEOs who use Third World sweatshop labor.

Defenders of companies such as Foxconn say that as bad as working conditions seem to us Americans, they are a net gain for Chinese who would otherwise be trapped in rural poverty.  The economist Paul Krugman, a self-identified liberal, makes this argument, as does the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, whose wife Sheryl WuDunn was born on a farm not far from Shenzen.   Americans worked under terrible conditions a century and a quarter ago, but this created the foundation of our later prosperity.

My response to this is to allow the workers themselves to decide what is tolerable and what isn’t.  In the late 19th century United States, American workers risked being blacklisted, arrested and shot down by Pinkerton detectives and National Guardsmen rather than endure the conditions under which they worked.  In China, a worker will be blacklisted for asking for their legal rights, and arrested for belonging to a “secret” union—that is, a union not controlled by the Communist Party.  Yet unions are organized, strikes take place, and workers take the chance of talking to somebody like Mike Daisey.

Working people, not American CEOs or Chinese commissars, should be the ones to decide what conditions are tolerable, and what are not.

Mike Daisey talks about this as part of a one-man performance called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”  He was interviewed about this on This American Life, a radio program broadcast by National Public Radio in Chicago.

Click on Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory for an audio recording of his interview on This American Life.  Click on Transcript | This American Life for a transcript of the broadcast.  The program is well worth reading or listening to in its entirety.

Click on Steve Jobs, Enemy of Nostalgia for Mike Daisey’s view of Steve Jobs’ legacy.

Click on Chinese workers asked for no-suicide pledge for an earlier post of mine on Foxconn.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: