Apple and the 80-Cent iPhone Problem

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Mike Daisey on stageMike Daisey on stage

Image: courtesy of kevinberne.com

I am a father. But I’m not just a dad, I’m a geeky dad. I love technology, and have loved her for a long time. And, if all you dads out there are anything like me, you want the best technology. To me, the best technology is the optimum fusion of function and form. That means I want my computing, gaming and networking not just nicely handled but rocked in style by machines that massage my eyes with their übercool lines. And, whenever great performance is fused with attractive form, it will pull you like an enchanted rodent to the altar of Apple Computer, Inc. in Cupertino, CA, where the pied piper Steve Jobs works his spells. Being a father and an indulgent technologist, I never thought much about the Apple computers I used, or how long I’d been involved with them. Until I saw my old PowerBook G4 in the Mac museum in the Seattle Repertory Theater lobby while biding time before a performance of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. “That’s my PowerBook!” I blurted out, in the present tense, betraying my feeling of attachment to my old Mac, my precious’s platinum doppelgänger behind museum glass. “It’s in a museum!” I whispered to myself in dismay. My son threw me a disgusted what-species-of-horridly-obsolete-paleolithic-end-user-are-you glance of the iPad generation. Behold the mesmerizing influence of Apple! Even we early adopters of iOS devices will always have a soft spot for our old Macs. I started to wonder more about my own history of acquiring Apple products. Why do we feel like we need them so much in our lives? And by the way, who really makes these marvelous gadgets anyway? It was almost time for the show, and I was hoping that Mike Daisey might just have the answer, or at least more of the right questions to ask.

Mike Daisey is a one man show recently completed a very successful run at the Seattle Repertory Theater. Daisey talks about his experience with Apple. And I do mean “talks,” as his performance is a conversation-in-the-round, the kind of performance that asks for an intellectual and emotional response from the audience to work. It’s a kind of theatrical experience that Daisey calls “extemporaneous monologuing.” Daisey talks about Apple and the vision of Steve Jobs, posing the question to us (as an audience of consumers): “What does Steve’s vision mean to the rest of the world?” It means the best computing machines, more powerful computing, improved connectivity, best quality hardware and more design awesomeness, right? “Coolness.” The last part of the vision is one reason why the House of Mac mesmerizes our inner rodent with the mellifluous call of the Apple pied piper, and the one that keeps us running back to the doors of Cupertino time after time to find the products and upgrades we “need,” but we don’t know why we need them. Oh yeah, because they’re cool. Think of that dapper spy in the Dolce & Gabbana pantsuit, typing up a quick top secret memo on the balcony of her Venice hotel. You really think she’s chatting with the Byelorussian Spy Commissioner on a Dell? She deftly taps noiselessly on her iPad as the ochre-tinted sun sinks behind her on the Grand Canal. It looks good. It looks … cool. And, when you look cool on the outside, you feel good all over.

So why else do we think we need these items of computer goodness? All of us use technology products in our daily lives on our own and with our families as a means to make connections to other people and the world at large. They may be virtual connections, but they are connections just the same. But Daisey makes the claim that as we use our Apple products to make connections, we also end up fetishizing the technology that allows these hyper connections to our world. He uses his attachment to his iPhone as an example. Daisey maintains that we have become reliant on the power of “connectivity” of the iPhone. We check our alarm settings (and Tokyo time) before we go to bed, we check our Twitter feed, saving our “to read” content to the Read It Later app and then browse our Facebook Wall updates. The problem, according to Daisey, is that we’re been lured into a technological delusion about knowledge. We think that we know as much as the expansive and powerful knowledge systems enabled by the technological tools we use and are so attached to. So we end up fetishizing our technology with blind trust and we rely on its ability to validate the existence of new information. But, we ignore what is outside technology’s network of googling as non-existent and irrelevant to our lives. “If it ain’t in Google, it doesn’t exist.”

Daisey makes the point that when you control the technology, you control the medium through which people view the world. In today’s techno-centered society, we perceive the world via our iPhone, that mediates the reality of the world around us. Apple devices run the apps of social media that curate the flow of information about what is important in culture, entertainment, politics and technology. Are Daisey’s points a cautionary tale or the rants of a technophobe? Apple does exercise strict control over the development and use of its operating system and has DRM restrictions for its audio and video products. We are so engrossed in the mystique of this Apple universe: the design, the performance, the coolness. What about information about the world that escapes the critical grasp of most people? This is information whose very existence has no validation for us, as it’s off the beaten track of our social networks. Apple products are excellent in design, performance and coolness, but how high is the price we really pay to use them, Daisey asks. What is the human price?

Technology companies from around the world created the Special Economic Zones in China. These are industrial zones created with over $30 billion of foreign investment to manufacture various industrial and electronic devices for foreign markets. The first of these special economic zones and one of the most successful is Shenzhen (Guangdong Province), found just north of Hong Kong. Many factories in Shenzhen have been used by U.S. companies to manufacture consumer electronics devices. Among the list are U.S. companies Apple, Amazon, Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Microsoft and Vizio. One such contract manufacturer in Shenzhen is Foxconn International Holdings Ltd., China’s largest exporter. 50% of all consumer goods around the world are produced by Foxconn. Foxconn makes both the iPhone and the iPad (and the Kindle, by the way). These products are in extremely high demand in the U.S. So naturally, to satisfy the demand for Apple products, Foxconn’s production cycles must match this high demand for Apple products in the United States and around the world. Mike Daisey took a trip to Shenzhen posing as a potential investment partner. He took advantage of the rare access granted to him to find out information about how consumer products are made at Foxconn and who makes them. He wanted to know more about the people making the Apple products we all know and love.

The labor conditions in the Foxconn plant are characterized by:

  • Repetitive, production line labor. The assembly is not done by machines. 450,000 workers in the Foxconn plant assemble iPhones and iPads by hand, on the assembly line.
  • Abuse of child labor (that commonly sees children as young as twelve working the line).
  • Common practice of workers doing long shifts of sixteen hours for up to months at a time.
  • Strict enforcement of an absolute silence rule for all workers on the assembly line.
  • Healthcare problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome are common, and often ignored by management.
  • Working conditions that are so bad there is a recurring worker suicide problem (workers in the past simply jumped off top of the Foxconn buildings). Foxconn responded to this inconvenience by putting up nets around the sides of its buildings.

Worker unions are illegal in China, so workers’ rights are not protected. Daisey met in secret with several workers who made requests to the Foxconn management about unpaid overtime and medical claims, which were ignored. These workers were simply blacklisted by the Chinese Commerce Authority, who created a public blacklist document against them. They are considered “subversive troublemakers” by the State.

When Daisey moves the tone of his extemporaneous monologuing from growing up with Apple computers as a child to talking to the workers of Shenzhen, there was definitely a different vibe in the audience. A palpable force. Wow, those pretty machines in the museum, at home, in my pocket, that mould how we see the world – are made by hand?! Working a sixteen hour shift doing hand assembly of electronic components? And hand assembly by twelve-year-olds? I looked at my fourteen-year-old son and pictured him fitting iPhone components together for sixteen hours, in silence, his wrists cramped in pain, assembling an iPhone that costs 80 cents to make. The message of Mike Daisey was complete and hammered home. We all love our Apple technology. We understand (more or less) why we’re so involved with it. Many of us know of the worker problem in Shenzhen, and may still be all right with it. But our lust for gadgetry has created a problem for workers in Shenzhen, China. And it affects the lives of real people, many of them children. It is our American problem, an ethical problem we should all care deeply about.

So, here are my thoughts on the 80-cent iPhone problem for Steve Jobs.


Dear Mr. Jobs,

I am a long time Mac user. And, I name myself an “aficionado,” as I honestly do admire the Apple products I own: my Macbook, my iPhone, my iPad. I do believe Apple has always created products with fine design that hold the comfort, the ease of use and the quality of the user experience foremost in mind. They are the best, and I know this.

After I saw Mike Daisey’s performance in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, my faith in Apple products was shaken to the core as I learned about the treatment of the workers in the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China.

One of the stories I heard was of a man, a worker who was present at a meeting with Mike Daisey and some underground union representatives. Mike asked the man (through his translator) what product he worked on. The man had a club hand from an accident where his hand was caught in a metal cutting machine on an iPad production line. The man said that he used to work on iPads at Foxconn, but was now working in a lumber factory, where he said the work was “better and the hours more reasonable.” Responding to the man’s emotional story, Daisey pulled out his iPad to show it to the man. The man’s club hand caressed the iPad, his stump bringing the icons to life and he said, “This is like magic!” He had never seen the final iPad product, on whose assembly he had worked on for so long. Most iPads are exported to people like me in the West.

Mr. Jobs, honor this man’s sacrifice. Please help to improve the worker conditions at Foxconn, using your same zeal for excellence and your same creative force that makes the Apple products we all admire and use to improve our lives. When I think about the Foxconn workers who created my products, I’m reminded of their long days assembling my iPhone by hand, the children who put together my iPad and the nagging thought that no one at Foxconn cares if their hands are hurting or if they have to go to the bathroom. They are not allowed to take breaks, as their production quotas must exceed the standard to meet the wants of me, the consumer in the U.S.

I care about those people, and I care that they are the ones making the products. Please take a moment to consider that you can put your influence to work. You have the power of voice to make a statement about the working conditions at the Foxconn plant, that Apple does care, as a company, about the horrible conditions of the workers of Foxconn.

Apple design, performance and coolness clearly come at a much higher price than I realized, Mr. Jobs. We can not make the workers of Shenzhen pay the price for our greed. Turn your magical hands to this worker problem, and help the workers of Shenzhen. For our moral sake, and for your own.

Sincerely,

​Michael Venables

Dad, Apple aficionado

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