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.

7 thoughts on “Do you know who made your iThing?

  1. I was actually pretty unimpressed with this podcast – Daisey gives the impression of having so firnly made up his mind that things are terrible that no evidence to the contrary, and no effort to fix problems, can possibly improve things.

    Particularly striking is Daisey’s attitude toward the fact that suicide rates are dramatically lower at Foxconn than elsewhere in China. Ira Glass falsely asserts that this is because China has disproportionately high suicide rates. Untrue: Foxconn employees commit suicide at a rate barely 1/4 of the worldwide average. Daisey’s response – that 12 is still a big number and essentially that he doesn’t care that Foxconn is actually doing really well by this measure – makes it hard to take the rest of the report very seriously.

  2. Companies have a responsibility to ensure their producers/supply chains meet at least minimum standards, and depending on the firm this responsibility can be treated as human resource management, labour management, or even corporate social responsibility. For individuals interested in working in development and private industry, these kinds of positions can be fascinating.

  3. I’d like to point out the irony that I will be listening to this “podcast” (an Apple term in itself) on my iPhone. Either that or on iTunes on the computer. Even for those who don’t own Apple products, the lingo is part of our everyday vernacular by now.

  4. I listened to the whole thing, as I hope most of you did. Even though the story telling in the beginning stirred my emotions I thought Ira Glass concluded the entire episode excellently and placed it in realistic terms. Foxconn makes products for a number of companies and Apple seems to be at least as if not more transparent as any of the other companies Dell, Samsung etc. Aren’t all scientists (including economists) of the opinion that emotion should be removed from these types of issues and that we should only look at the facts? I think the facts show that China is a much better place than it was 10 or 20 years ago. These people are not enslaved, they are working to make their own and the lives of their children much better and I think it will become that way.