Monday, April 25, 2011

Today is my first day off in months, and so I have enough time to address some of the press that has been responding to THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS. There is far too much for me to respond to every story, so I thought I would respond to a Betanews story that posted today, as a way of trying to address one breaking response. I choose it because it’s reasonably well-written, and the author has actually seen my work, which gives us more to work with than many pieces on the web. You can read his piece here.

“Daisey researched the second story by going to Shenzhen, hiring a translator and faking his way in for a Foxconn factory tour posing as a prospective American businessman. Then he stood outside the fence and interviewed employees on their way out after their shift.”

I think it is important to understand that I spent weeks in Shenzhen, and that I visited a huge number of factories, and interviewed hundreds of workers. I am not trying to puff up my work, but to be clear that the efforts involved in telling this story are far more than a cursory visit—I am confident I spent far more time on the ground than WIRED did for their
pathetic piece where not a single worker was interviewed.

“These conditions hit the news in the last couple years as a string of suicides occurred at Foxconn. I believe Daisey said that there were "dozens" but the highest number in the news sources I've found is 14.”

This is because the Western press became temporarily obsessed with what appeared to be a cluster of suicides in the spring of 2010. The fact is that if you have been following this story, suicides happen at the plant in significant numbers since 2006…dozens and dozens of them. Because the Western press never paid attention until a single Associated Press story came out highlighting them, no one looks further back at all.

“Daisey describes how the factory, when he was there, had netting up near the roof of the buildings to prevent employees from jumping, and he asserted that this was the only action taken by the company.”

At the time that I visited, at the height of the suicides, that was indeed the only action the company had taken. Later the Western press shamed them into a number of gestures, including a company-wide 30% pay raise that then never actually fully materialized…a few months ago thousands of Foxconn workers protested this, which you can read about at

“The Al Jazeera report below shows one company response, stating that the suicide rate is in fact much lower than in the country as a whole. This is certainly crude, and perhaps cynical, but as I said there are over 400,000 people working there. You'd expect some suicides now and then even for reasons unrelated to work.”

This has become the default response of the tech community—you run the numbers and then assert that everything is fine. But it is not normal for the region for workers to kill themselves in this manner. It is not normal for them to kill themselves in this public way at work. Daniel Lyons did an excellent take-down of this kind of use of statistics to prop up what is obviously a a few months ago, which you can read for yourself

“But Daisey also drops a few specific claims that just don't sound right to me, such as when he says that over 50 percent of the electronics we buy are made in Shenzhen. It's not like I have the numbers, but I'll believe them when I see them from a more reputable source.”

I said that 52% of all electronics are made by Foxconn, not in Shenzhen. I’m quoting from Foxconn’s own annual reports, and the BusinessWeek story on Terry Gou.

“Or when he gave the population of Shenzhen as over 30 million, when other sources I looked for have it (as of 2009) at just under 9 million.”

I actually state the population is 14 million. I have recordings of every performance, so I can prove what I have said, and that number is accurate when you measure Shenzhen as the core and the factory zone, the way that most reasonable people would estimate its size.

“One more thing, although it's not a major point: The process Daisey describes is just that of final product assembly. The employees are putting components together, but those components -- the circuit boards, the displays, connectors, the cables -- all these are certainly made in a more automated process.”

I don’t talk about this because it really doesn’t pertain to a discussion of the labor standards for the assembly of the devices.

“I also thought that Daisey misleads by implying, as he does, that Western companies are running things in China. The Chinese government, he says, invited in "our" corporations and asked them to run things. But the companies in these zones are Chinese or, as in Foxconn's case, Taiwanese.”

The Special Economic Zone was established and our Western corporations were the ones who were consulted about systems, asked to set up standards, and responsible for. That happened. Our corporations participated and made it possible. Today, with the Chinese companies acting as the actual labor force, they make almost all of the Western companies products—those companies have *enormous* power over those conditions, if they chose to exert it, and enormous responsibility. Period.

“In fact, if Western companies were directly running things conditions would be much better because Western consumers and governments would demand it and would have real leverage.”

This is an illusion—we have real leverage *now*. Our corporations choose not to use that leverage, because they like the current system. This is why we’re responsible for perpetuating the system.

“I'm as skeptical of company propaganda as the next guy, but the Foxconn "Corporate Social & Environmental Responsibility Report" (2009) describes a multitude of programs and facilities to assist employees, from mental health counseling, employee training and development and academic assistance. Pictures of the employee gymnasium, table tennis room and the employee talent show (Foxconn's Got Talent!) show a progressive and healthful environment.”

When the companies are open to outside, independent verification, let’s talk again. When I can no longer stand at the front gates and speak with 14, 13, and 12 year-olds, we can re-examine this. Until then, I couldn’t give a tin-plated shit how many foosball tables anyone claims they have on premises.

“Remember, all these employees went to those companies because there was even less for them back in their villages. They stay there because they earn money that's not available to them back home. Remember also that those employees dread demerits that could lose them their employment. Is this fair? I guess not, but as a general rule life's not fair.”

First, I want to be clear that I acknowledge all this in the monologue.

That said…the idea that these conditions can be met with a shrug and a sigh and the belief that this is simply “unfair” is a bit staggering. We have standards in the world that exist not because they are “fair” or “unfair”, but because we believe human beings have some degree of native rights. They’re called human rights, and by any reasonable measure they are being violated inside this system on a massive scale.

“The reason all those factories are in China is because there is cheap labor available. If the factories were somehow compelled to treat their employees well and pay Western wages there wouldn't be any point to having factories there.”

This is the most infuriating part for me, because I take great pains in the monologue to dissect this, and I speak to it directly. I actually disconnect the cost of humane labor conditions from wages, and talk about how in America we keep conflating them. Within the limited space of the piece I am very exactingly clear about this. Nevertheless, Mr. Seltzer has chosen to conflate them together to make a point, ignoring what I actually said.

The creation of humane working conditions does not mean you have to pay Western wages. They are two separate discussions. The only reason to conflate them is so that we can sit in the West and shrug and say it’s impossible to reform anything, because it would make it all too expensive. That’s ridiculous, offensive, untrue, and stupid. It may not be simple, but implementing humane reforms is absolutely possible, and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to do so.

“What would happen if Apple and other Western companies demanded better conditions and credibly threatened to take their business elsewhere? It's hard to say, especially without those numbers I couldn't find. It's possible that conditions would improve in order for Foxconn and others to retain that lucrative business.”

Well, it isn’t just lucrative—it’s all their business. If the West demanded things change, and worked to implement that and it was a real priority, it would happen.

Look at conflict minerals. For years the tech industry has shrugged and dragged its feet and said it could never regulate—never, ever, ever. Then they are forced to account for where the materials come from…and magically all the companies find that they can figure out how to come into compliance, because now there is an actual threat and a regulation, so they actually apply themselves. The whiplash from their position change is staggering.

Corporations are very powerful. When they argue that they are fragile, and they can not change or they were wilt, we should all be very, very suspicious.

“Is it wrong to buy an iPhone because of the way the people who assembled it were treated? Start looking at things like that and you're treading into deep waters. Should you not buy gasoline because Saudi Arabia oppresses women? Should you instead try for wind and solar power, the components for which are largely built in China? Peasants in Latin America have a rough life, so should you not drink coffee? And you'll probably have to end up making your own clothes because despite some serious efforts stop it, sweatshops in the textile and apparel businesses are still common.”

This is also deeply frustrating for me because Mr. Seltzer saw my show. I address this idea—that we love our tools, and we need our tools, but everything is interwoven and tainted, because we live in the real world. It is frustrating to see this presented as a defeatist maxim…since the world is complex, it’s better not to try.

I call bullshit on that. It is better to be an adult than it is to be a child, and in the West we have a strong tradition of living like spoiled children. If it is deep water to actually wrestle with these matters, then it is deep water where we should all be swimming as adults. Instead too often we sit in a kiddy pool and tell ourselves fantasies about consumerism, and work hard to be ignorant.

Mr. Seltzer ends with:

“I'm of the opinion that things in China won't really change until political freedoms become more Western-style. Maybe I'm an insensitive cultural imperialist, but maybe Chinese culture teaches way too much deference to authority. The Communist Party pays lip service to the idea of revolution but regularly makes a mockery of the notion by suppressing any meaningful dissent. The list of one-party states that are free and socially responsible is certainly a short, and probably empty one.”

In this we absolutely agree…but I look deeper, and I see my country, ostensibly dedicated to freedom, using its power and its corporations to empower that fascist country run by thugs. If we know this is true, we can not simply sit back and shrug and wonder what happens next. We need to open our eyes, recognize who we are and what we have done, and begin the hard work that change requires of us.