Friday, February 24, 2012



David Pogue weighed in yesterday about the Nightline piece.

I have been trying to engage with Mr. Pogue, but it hasn't gone well.

I hate to take the gloves off, but I feel like there's little choice after this latest column. Pogue has the platform of the NYT to use as he wishes, and after a certain point you have to take him behind the woodshed. Mr. Pogue has developed a habit of repeating Apple talking points with such fervor that he is often leaving out crucial details and context.

And at a certain point good will dissipates, and all that is left are two choices: Mr. Pogue is ignorant, or Mr. Pogue is manipulative.

That's quite a charge, so let me walk you through the piece.

First Pogue summarizes the situation, which I would take some issue with the details of, though it isn't the heart of what I object to. He writes:

Apple responded by vowing to take Chinese worker safety and welfare even more seriously, and it hired the Fair Labor Association to survey 35,000 Foxconn employees about their working conditions. The results of the audit will be made public next month.

To be clear—having yet another audit, particularly from a group Apple has hired to do the job, isn't taking anything more seriously. Apple's own internal auditing, with no oversight, has already found serious problems in its supply chain for years and years.

Apple doesn't contest its own findings, does it? No, they don't. They know there have been severe problems for years and years, and have done nothing to attack the problem at its roots. There's no universe where hiring a group to give people iPad photo op tests in classrooms 30 at a time is a substitute for actual labor remediation.

This is PR.

For its part, Foxconn responded by raising factory workers' salaries as much as 25 percent.

Not so fast. This has become a talking point in favor of Foxconn that has been repeated again and again.
As SACOM has been reporting, "The new basic wage only applies to the workers in Shenzhen. In inland provinces, where two-thirds of production workers are based, basic salary remains meager. Given that inflation in China is high. Foxconn is just following the trend of wage increases in the electronics industry in China."

So it is more accurate to say that Foxconn is raising workers salaries in the specific location where the inspections are happening, at the time of the inspections...and at a time when due to inflation, they would probably be forced to raise them relatively soon.

This is PR. This is not substantive change, from Apple or Foxconn.

Then Mr. Pogue addresses what he feels he learned from the Nightline piece:

It didn't look like a sweatshop, frankly. The assembly-line work was certainly mind-numbingly repetitive — one woman files the burrs off the iPad's Apple-logo hole 6,000 times a day — but that's the nature of assembly-line work. Meanwhile, this factory was clean and modern.

This is where it starts.

Look, can I be frank?

I don't mind it when I hear this talking point from people who wandered into this conversation midway—it's broken into the mainstream, and not everyone has spent two years working exclusively in the realm of Chinese labor practices, and so you need to educate people.

But why do I have to educate David Pogue?

Why is David Pogue unaware of the nature of assembly lines for the creation of the devices he reviews every day? Doesn't he know that they are of course "clean and modern"—they are assembling electronics, and people are in clean suits!

What are my choices here?

A) David Pogue has done so little reading and thinking about these issues that he is genuinely surprised. He had thought it might "look like a sweatshop"—which, I gather from context, is some dank Dickensian room filled with 19th century misery. But this is globalism in the 21st century, and the tech columnist for the NYT should be well-versed in these issues and know the contradictions.


B) Pogue does know this, but he is condescending to his readers to further his argument.

More tellingly, the broadcast showed 3,000 young Chinese workers lining up at the gates for Foxconn's Monday morning recruiting session.


Pogue, this isn't telling. Anyone who has been working on this, or following it even a little, knows that there is enormous pressure for these jobs in China. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT.

The fact that there is such pressure is actually part of the constellation of reasons why abuses flourish—the demand for that work from the rural regions creates a steady supply of new workers who can then be abused. The monthly turnover rate at Foxconn is 20%—20%! That is absolutely extraordinarily high, and says something about how their model works.

But nothing about that demand excuses breaking local Chinese labor law daily, which is what Foxconn does. Because a job is in demand from rural workers in an authoritarian country with tight controls doesn't magically mean that human rights abuses are ok.

This doesn't stop Pogue—he doubles down:

Now, these workers know about the 2010 Foxconn suicides. They know that the starting salary is $2 an hour (plus benefits, and no payroll taxes). They know they'll have 12-hour shifts, with two hourlong breaks. They know that workers sleep in a tiny dorm (six or eight to a room) for $17 a month.

And yet here they are, lining up to work! Apparently, even those conditions, so abhorrent to us, are actually better than these workers' alternatives: backbreaking rural farm work that doesn't prepare them to move up the work force food chain.

Pogue: workers choices in a broken system with very little personal freedom, and very restrictive economic choices, are not excuses for corporate malfeasance.

The violations are documented, even by Apple, and are violations of Chinese labor law. THAT ALONE is enough to merit remediation. And your own paper made clear, the situation is actually a lot worse than the Apple auditing had shown.

You can't get "informed consent" in a country without real personal freedom. These arguments are pathetic—they're structurally nearly identical to the ones made in the 19th century justifying slavery. The fact that workers take these jobs because they feel they have no economic, social, or political choice, and this is the only path, is not an endorsement of the current system—it's actually a condemnation.

It is cute how he makes a point of noting that there are no payroll taxes on your $2 an hour.

Do you think Mr. Pogue verified that, or that he's spent any time digging through Foxconn's history of deceptive paying practices—like how it pretended that it raised employee salaries 30% in 2010 by simply moving money around?

No, I don't think he did, either.

Then Pogue writes:

That's also what a former Apple executive told me this week: that Foxconn is not a career. You don't see 30- and 40-year-old heads of households on the assembly lines. The young Chinese see it as "something like a first summer job," he told me — a way to make some bucks for a few months before heading home, or to get some work experience before moving up.

"First summer job"? "Heading home"? "Moving up"?

What the hell, Pogue?

First, it is sad that a former Apple executive is this out to lunch...but typical, based on the hundreds of Apple employees who have contacted me over the years. People create all kinds of delusions to justify their decisions and frameworks.

But, Pogue—you?

This isn't a "summer job"—it's people who never left their villages uprooting their whole lives. It's not a summer—it's often at least a few years, often longer, at first at Foxconn and across the SEZ.

And the stakes are ENORMOUS for these people—the money they make can save their families back home.

My "first summer job" didn't have 20 people in a village in a rural area praying I would send money back home on my one day off a month, once I managed to walk down to the Western Union after working 12 and 14 hour shifts every single day. My "first summer job" never got me poisoned, nor did anyone gather a group of my coworkers around me to scream at me to humiliate me, nor did I have to do military exercises to break down my will. My "first summer job" never started with me as an "intern" who gets worked to the bone for starvation wages because it is an "educational experience".

There is just about NOTHING in this situation that is like "a first summer job".

The fact that Mr. Pogue would publish this morsel, without comment, as explanation or context raises the same questions.

Does Mr. Pogue simply know very little about this situation?

Or does it further the portrait he is painting to ignore these things?

The second enlightening twist, for me, was a note sent to me from a young man, born in China and now attending an American university.

You can read the entire note at the article, but the short version is that the student's aunt was a prostitute before she got a job in a factory, where work was hard but better than being in the rural area. He asks that we think before calling to shut down sweatshops, because they enable people to escape harsh circumstances. It ends on a nice note—the aunt is now in America, and the job at the sweatshop made that possible.

It's a nice letter—and substantially, I agree with it.

Factory work can lift people out of wretched situations. No one, NO ONE, who is on the side of equitable labor standards disagrees with that. NO ONE.

That's why this is so disingenuous for Mr. Pogue to print it this way. It's one thing for the writer of the letter, who probably isn't following this situation closely, to be worried that what people are agitating for is the shutting down of factories.

But the fact is that no one has ever been talking about that in this entire debate. In fact, the only time it comes up is as a fear-based talking point, built around the delusion that the very people who want humane working conditions are actually trying to take away jobs.

Pogue must know this. He must. Yet...he publishes the whole letter, paragraphs and paragraphs, and refers to it as an "enlightening twist".

Is Pogue so ignorant of the ongoing discussion that he doesn't know that no one has been advocating for shutting down factories?

Or is publishing this letter a great way for Pogue to insinuate that argument, without having to actually make it?

Plenty of Westerners remain unconvinced, too, even by ABC’s report and Apple’s investigation. “Nightline,” for example, is a production of ABC News, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company; its chief executive serves on the Apple board, and the Steve Jobs Trust is Disney’s largest shareholder. (To its credit, ABC mentioned that potential conflict of interest in the broadcast.)

I haven't talked about this very much, but yes—inviting Nightline, of all people, to evaluate Apple is an incredible conflict of interest. I really wonder why Apple invited Nightline? They could have invited anyone. Isn't it strange that they would invite the group that raises the most questions with regards to objectivity?

I love that we now say "to its credit" ABC mentioned it. "Credit"? Have we fallen that low?

You don't get credit for mentioning the MASSIVE CONFLICT OF INTEREST your corporate masters have. That's a requirement.

Or maybe it feels that way to Mr. Pogue. After all, it's not as though he talks about his bestselling books, all about the Mac, the iPhone, the iPad, and all the Apple products he has been writing manuals about for years. Since he never feels any need to talk about
his conflicts of interest, perhaps he's impressed when others do.

Mr. Pogue wraps it up with:

In other words, the lessons of this controversy have more to do with China than with Apple. This is only marginally a technology story.

Is this Mr. Pogue's tacit admission as to why he's so ignorant of its facts? Because even though it is about the circumstances under which his technology is made, it is not a technology story?

Presumably that is because technology stories involve blinking lights, whirring sounds, and someone foursquaring from Silicon Valley while they update their Tumblr. It doesn't involve, in Mr. Pogue's view, such unsightly things as labor, work, and the real cost of an actual device.

We don't have time for this anymore.

Whether it comes from ignorance or deception, the stakes in labor, for working people's lives every day, are too important to be left to the likes of Mr. Pogue.

He had an opportunity to study this story. He's had the time to read and get up to speed. He could have been in the forefront, telling it, and instead he's in the rearguard, behind the mainstream press who is doing technology journalists' job for them, picking at the leftovers, making faces, and wondering when he can get back to slagging off the new Samsung tablet and embracing the next Apple device.

I'm not asking that Mr. Pogue agree with me. I'm saying he has shown he isn't competent to have this conversation from the platform of the New York Times.

If Mr. Pogue won't do his work and know enough about the situation to write articles that live up to what's really at stake here, he can stop. Now there are journalists doing the yeoman's work of holding this industry accountable who do not have as many conflicts of interest as Mr. Pogue has.
He can go back to reviewing gadgets. I will read him where I always have—after
Mossberg and Ars Technica.


People have been asking where they can find the transcript of the show. It's at the top of the sidebar, or you can download it
here to read the story.