Monday, February 20, 2012



Nightline just announced that they'll be doing an exclusive from inside Foxconn about Apple's supply chain. You can watch the rather breathless promo trailer
here, and the text is already online at the same link.

First, let me be clear—it's good that due to public pressure Apple caved and felt they had to let someone in. They are doing everything they can to spin this, but it is very good for connecting us to the manufacturing process of our devices, and most importantly the lives of the people who make them.

The story does a lot for actually helping to give a human face to people who have been ignored forever.

But context is everything. Here are some selected quotes from the article that illuminate Foxconn's control and Nightline's methodology:

When Apple first called, I assumed this audit would include a surprise inspection. But Foxconn has known for days that we were coming...there were always five to six people with us as we toured the factories and dorms.

So Nightline had unrestricted access and could talk to whomever they chose, but there were always a group of Foxconn people with them at all times. So workers have a news crew, with cameras and lights, and a number of Foxconn executives shadowing them, and in that environment they were expected to tell their stories.

Frankly, the fact that workers talked as much as they did is remarkable, and congruent with my experiences.

Over three days in two cities, "Nightline" spoke with dozens of Foxconn workers

Let's assume this means 36 hours or so on the ground in each city, and 8 or 9 hours for sleep each night—it's basically a work day (an American one—remember, 12 hour shifts are standard at Foxconn) to do all the interviewing of workers, see the facilities, speak with the FLA, speak with Foxconn executives, do assessments, build trust, and search out labor violations—all while you have the cameras, the lights, and the aforementioned Foxconn executives in tow.

I was alone, and my investigations were more targeted and more through than this. In fact, if Nightline only spoke with dozens of workers, then that means in raw terms I actually spoke with more workers—and I spoke with them in circumstances where trust could be created, and took the time needed to have those conversations.

So when Nightline says:

But while we looked hard for the kind of underage and maimed workers we've read so much about, but we mostly found people who face their days through soul-crushing boredom and deep fatigue.

you have to take it with a grain of salt, in the context of what they were doing.

The whole reason I talked about the underage workers I met in the monologue was because of how they said the monitoring was completely ineffective. Even Apple's own audits have discovered child labor in their supply lines—but you need real labor investigators, with independence, to root things out.

And maimed workers? Why on earth would maimed workers still be on the production lines? I talk about how they get thrown away when they don't perform—why would they be waiting in the dormitories to give interviews?

News organizations like Nightline are fantastic at catching executives saying the wrong thing—which is often when they say exactly what they mean.

Louis Woo is quoted a couple of times in the piece running interference for Foxconn—at one point he conflates China's Communist-run state unions with real unions, in an attempt to make it sound like it isn't illegal to organize a union. (It is.)

But the best part is when this former Apple executive, who has moved over to Foxconn in their very cozy relationship, says:

"Of course you can argue that we should have opened up five years ago. Well five years ago, we are under the radar screen, nobody really knows us, we are doing well. Why should I open it up?"

This is the real voice of both Apple and Foxconn. They knew what the labor situation was years ago—they knew their workers were being driven into the ground, they knew exactly what they were doing as they squeezed margins and ran their workers harder...

...and their only real regret is that the world started paying attention.

And had no one spoken up, they would not have changed a single thing.

That may not be the PR spin Apple is hoping for, but it's the truth.

This is exactly why we can not take our eye off the ball. Apple is reacting here to public pressure, and we can not afford the luxury of believing that anything happening now would happen without that pressure. We must not relent.