March 25, 2012

Exploit the exploited

Thanks to the brilliant journalism of Mike Daisey, we have come to learn about factory conditions at Apple manufacturing plants in China.

Daisey's commentary struck such a nerve that we have been buying tickets to his one-man off-Broadway rants and paying his speaking fees as he crosses the country to share his experiences.

His story was compelling. He told of his conversations with Apple factory workers who could not even hold a glass of Starbucks coffee because their exposure to the glass-cleaning produce n-hexane induced neurological disorders.

He spoke of many 13- and 14-year-old workers he came across who worked 60-hour weeks in the factories. He even told how whole sections of factories would explode on occasion because of dusty working conditions.

His story rang true because he told us what we wanted to believe. He also invoked that journalistic tradition of telling us a story compelling in its irony — part of the Apple image is in its social integrity.

Unfortunately, the story was a lie. Daisey came clean on a Public Radio broadcast called "This American Life" with host Ira Glass, who had also been duped and then devoted an entire show to correcting the lies.

Some have concluded that Daisey's journalistic license was not entirely inappropriate. After all, there are surely under-age employees in factories elsewhere in China, as there are in the United States.

There have also been urban legends of n-hexane-afflicted workers, there and elsewhere, even if Daisey now admits he never met any. And part of a factory did explode due to dusty conditions, but it was not a Foxconn factory that supplies Apple.

I am not an apologist for Apple or for China, whose greenhouse-gas emissions recently surpassed ours. Their more highly concentrated political power is not to our liking. And Apple's monopolistic tendencies are almost unrivaled in modern industry.

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