Do you know who made your iThing?

Mike Daisey was a self-described “worshipper in the cult of Mac.” Then he saw some photos from a new iPhone, taken by workers at the factory where it was made. Mike wondered: Who makes all my crap? He traveled to China to find out.

That is the tagline from this week’s This American Life, freely available as an mp3 this week. Often funny but also often horrifying: Child workers, terrible workplace injuries, and police state tactics. They have released reports on the Apple subcontractor from October 2010May 2011, and September 2011.

I am of two minds. If even a tenth of the abuses are systematically true, then even the most ardent capitalist among you should be incensed.

On the other hand, I am in the midst of a randomized control trial of factory labor in Ethiopia. One reason is because I believe–and the early results suggest–that the improvements in poverty and work conditions and risk and well-being are huge. Huge huge.

But accounts like Daisey’s add nuance. Factories may only look good relative to the alternative (unemployment, or toiling in fields) but could be terrible in absolute terms. This is most true when workers have at least basic rights and protection, and the employer is not a monopsonist or cabal–the only real employer in town. The Apple subcontractor’s plant has more than 400,000 workers. That offers more than a little non-market power.

Listen to the podcast, but be warned that you won’t look at your Apple product the same way again.

Daisey is a superb storyteller and this is a travelling monologue/show. Daisey’s website, showdates and other monologues are here. I am planning to see the NYC show.