Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Brian Ford made an open interview request, which I thought I'd take a few moments to answer.

Q: What was the spark that led you to write and perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs?

A: First, I'm a monologist, so you should know that the piece isn't written—I'm an extemporaneous autobiographical solo performer, in the tradition of monologists like Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Spaulding Gray.

But setting aside that, the answer is actually contained in the piece itself—as I speak about both on stage and in the TAL excerpt, I am a tremendous Apple fan, and I saw pictures that I became obsessed with, and that started me asking questions and researching, which culminated in traveling to China.

Q: Do you have a background in manufacturing? Any business experience? What about Chinese history and/or culture?

I have a background in a number of areas. I worked at in Business Development for a couple of years a decade ago. I have written for WIRED, the New York Times, and a number of other publications, in addition to being the author of a memoir. I've made a full-time living as a monologist for twelve years, touring around the world to places like the Sydney Opera House and the Public Theater, and doing work in both India and Tajikistan, where I worked with people from all walks of like to tell stories from their time during their terrible civil war and afterward. The New York Times has called me, "The master storyteller—the finest solo performer of his generation." My work has for years involved reporting from a wide variety of places and contexts.

My knowledge of manufacturing is limited to specifically studying electronics manufacture in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone for the last three years. My knowledge of Chinese history is focused on the development of the SEZ after the Cultural Revolution.

Q: You talked with Foxconn employees, and those who follow your work can get a sense of life at Foxconn, from a certain perspective. How many people did you talk to and how long did you spend talking to them?

A: This is actually covered in Act II of the THIS AMERICAN LIFE piece I recorded.

Q: Can a worker quit their job at Foxconn if they determine that conditions are not acceptable? In other words, are we talking about forced labor or voluntary employment?

A: Foxconn workers are as free as anyone in an authoritarian state without civil liberties or recourse are, under a stacked deck of economic circumstances where they come into the work knowing they usually need to support a large number of dependents back in their villages.

Q: Assuming the latter, how many employees who are hired on actually decide to quit based on poor working conditions and/or low pay?

A: A huge number—one of the most exceptional things about Foxconn is their incredible turnover, which upwards of 20% a month. This is an extraordinary figure, and it reflects how many workers do everything they can to find other work within the SEZ as soon as they are able to. It says something extremely unsavory about Foxconn.

Q: Realistically speaking, what are Apple's options, if not Foxconn?

A: Apple has $100 billion dollars waiting in a strategic reserve, doing nothing. Apple has more than enough resources to pursue any course of action—that is an insane quantity of money, so it must be recognized that they could do almost anything. By far the most cost effective course of action has been what Apple has been doing—ignoring local labor laws, letting accidents and deaths happen, and simply calling it all the price of doing business. If they got serious about reform, the most cost-effective strategy would be to work to monitor and reform Foxconn by working with them, giving them incentives for compliance, and rehabilitating the way work is done there.

Q: How much of what we see at Foxconn is steeped in Chinese culture? Chinese politics?

Not as much as one might think—what is important to understand about Foxconn is that it is a Taiwanese company, and the tension between Taiwanese management and Chinese labor is part of its equation. Culture and politics inform any situation, but this one is informed more by the economic pressures that drive these workers into the cities to make a new life for themselves.

Q: Suicide (or threats of suicide) seem to be a common form of protest. Is this cultural? Why is suicide a better option than simply quitting?

A: Remember that at these numbers of workers, there have been extraordinary clusters of suicides, but most workers do quit if in a poor situation. Many, however, feel trapped—they have large families back in their villages they are trying to support, and they feel intense family pressures, and sometimes the management techniques at Foxconn have been especially abrasive for some. There are a constellation of stressors, so it is hard to say in generalities.

It is true that the protests on January 2nd were using the threat of suicide as a protest. This was clearly what happens in a country where all organized labor is faced with prison time—it is one of the few ad hoc tactics workers feel they can use, and it should tell us something about the atmosphere there.

Q: Is there a manufacturing facility in China with better working conditions than Foxconn?

A: How would we truly know? There is so little accountability and oversight that it's hard to crown anyone king, and I have not encountered, even anecodtally, any large-scale manufacturers that truly excel.

Q: Does Foxconn pay better, or worse, for similar work at similar factories?

A: Roughly similar, though many workers feel it is on the low side because the way it is computed derives so much from overtime that there was a belief, in mid-2010, that one might be better off elsewhere.

Q: Generally speaking, what is life like for the average Foxconn employee, prior to being employed by Foxconn?

A: Generally speaking its an agrarian life in rural China—extremely hard and poor with high rates of infant mortallity. It is a difficult life, which is the reason so many try to make it to the cities to change their lives.

Q: Do workers go to Foxconn seeking a career? A summer job? A way to save up for school?

A: They are looking to transform their lives.

Q: Q: Assuming Apple issues an ultimatum, and Foxconn refuses to comply: What happens to the 200,000-or-so workers who are dedicated to building iPhones and iPads if/when Apple packs up and leaves? In other words, for those 200,000-or-so workers, does life become better, or worse?

A: This scenario is so absurd, but if we entertain it, I think the workers should walk across the street to the new factory Apple is now working with in the SEZ that will hire them. The SEZ has rampant labor shortages now—this isn't going to happen in this way, ever.

Q: Labor activist Li Qiang has this to say about Apple:

Although I know that the iPhone 4 is made at sweat shop factories in China, I still think that this is the only choice, because Apple is actually one of the best. Actually before I made a decision, I compared Apple with other cell phone companies, such as Nokia,” he said through a translator. “And the conditions in those factories are worse than the ones of Apple.

As more and more outlets publish on this topic, much of the dialogue seems to be focusing on populist demands that Apple do more, but there seems to be evidence that Apple is, in fact, doing more. (Here, I mean "doing more" in the sense that they're doing more than they were and that they're doing far more than other companies to improve conditions and increase accountability.) Meanwhile, Qiang seems to suggest that Apple "doesn't care about Chinese workers" and he bases this claim on the fact that Apple won't talk to him (or other labor activists) while other companies (with worse track records) will.

Is action less important than lip service?

A: First, if you are going to crib from Gruber, you should link to him. Second, the entire premise of this is false. Li Qiang has been a labor activist for decades. His work is above reproach, and stretches across the electronics industry, into every manufacturer, doing everything possible to keep them accountable. The fact that Apple has been "doing more" than others doesn't absolve them of the crimes they've been committing, and now that they have been brought to light clearly he's doing his job. Your casual connection between Li Qiang's statement that Apple "doesn't care about Chinese workers" is, in the article, clearly based on the NYT and SACOM coverage of their behavior—only a gross misreading of the article would come up with the idea that this is about PR.

I say "doing more" in quotes because it has to be remembered that Apple's efforts have been utterly untransparent, hidden from all outside scrutiny, and based on the NYT report have largely failed. Their own metrics show that overtime abuse is totally out of control, and even with their very infrequent audits (which everyone has told me are announced in advance) they still find underage labor. So I would strongly question that these examples of "doing more" do much for Apple's record.

Q: Is there evidence which suggests that Apple is in a position to demand more change than they're already driving and if so, what is that evidence?

A: Apple dominates the industry in terms of their incredible profit margin, and their immense strategic reserve of $100 billion dollars. This gives them all the position they need. Their relationship with Foxconn is well understood—Foxconn would jump if Apple provided the incentive, and if Apple made it a priority to truly reform the supply chain because of public pressure, they would. They could have done it years ago. They have chosen not to.

Q: What was it like to work in a similar factory in China 10 years ago? 20 years ago?

A: That's a great way to end. There were no factories like this 20, or really even 10 years ago. What's happening in the SEZ is a particularly virulent form of globalism that lives at the collision point of capitalism, corporatism, and fascism. Knowing how quickly the zone is changing is part of us understanding how we can have a huge effect on the shape of things if we begin to be aware, and then show the world that humane conditions in workplaces is a fundamental human right.