Throwing Stones in Ira Glass’s House


On his personal website, mikedaisey.blogspot.com, Mike Daisey characterizes himself as an “Actor, author, commentator, playwright and general layabout.”  Some folks might say that kind of diversity in a person is admirable.  I say: choose one.

After listening to the Retraction podcast by Ira Glass on This American Life, I have a conflicted view of Daisey.  In his travels to the Foxconn Factory in Shenzhen, China in 2010, he grimly reported on an array of working condition maladies that fail to measure up to first-world country standards.  Daisey allegedly encountered mean guards carrying guns, 12-year old factory workers, unsanitary dormitories and underground union workers with n-Hexane exposure and mangled “claw” hands.  Unfortunately, however, his trip resembled nothing more than a deliberately, well-crafted fabrication based on rumors.  In effect, Daisey lied to the face of Ira Glass, the show’s host, and 100,000-plus audio downloaders who listened to his story.  In Daisey’s fantasy Shenzhen, he desperately attempts to create a “voice” for the mistreated workers in their “totality.”  Unfortunately, however, we are lured into believing a story with the same veracity as one in which Detroit autoworkers regularly gather on breaks at Chinese teahouses, according to Rob Schmitz of Marketplace.

New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg’s investigative analysis of overtime workers at Foxconn strongly calls into question the quality of life of Shenzhen factories versus other regions of China.  Among other observations, Duhigg studied the 2005 Apple Supplier Code of Conduct rules and their impacts on Chinese workers.  In 2005, over half of Foxconn workers broke the maximum work-week law of over 60 hours.  In fact, Duhigg promulgates that young factory workers actually want to work overtime for higher pay.  In addition to the unsanitary dormitories and uncomfortable working spaces, workers frequently demand more overtime for higher wages.  He also expresses that employees sometimes work “continuous shifts,” which are two consecutive 12-hour shifts.  In a Wall Street Journal article written by Paul Mozur in December 2012, 15 workers in a campus interview said they wanted to work over the legal limit of 9 overtime hours per week.  Instead, they were willing to abandon their families and local communities for the grinding urban life of 10-15 hours overtime per week.  Even more shocking, workers have been cited to flee to Vietnam and Mexico where labor restrictions are more lax and costs are lower.

This begs the question: Why is there such little opportunity to enjoy a decent life in rural China?  Why do so many young Chinese people flock to large, urban technology factories with suicide nets sagging on every side?  Is there something wrong with this picture?  One possible answer is that the Chinese political economy is structured in a fashion that promotes low-cost exports to larger, more dynamic economies like the United States and Europe.  For global companies like Apple with razor-thin profit margins and diverse customer demand, iPhones and iPads must be produced in the most efficient, “under-the-table” method.  So, enter China, a densely populated country with a plethora of young workers seeking low-paying, steady jobs at any human cost.  I believe this is the real story that Daisey imperfectly delivered to his audience.            While Daisey unjustly fabricated large blocks of his story, one of the most critical factors is Apple’s visible yet indirect influence on its foreign suppliers.  Again, Duhigg provides clarity on the harsh stringency of Apple’s negotiation techniques and contracts.  Relentlessly competing to sell its suite of devices to global consumers against other giants like Google, Microsoft and Samsung, Apple demands its contract conditions with the vigor of Gordon Gekko.  The company regularly meets with its Foxconn senior managers to review budgets and labor costs.  Because Apple maintains a thrifty eye over its labor costs and regularly reduces budgets, suppliers are so “penny-pinched” that they cannot afford better working conditions to alleviate the long time stretches of worker lines.  Similarly, Duhigg analyzes the criticality of Apple’s supply chain and the need for close proximity between manufacturers of various parts.  Overall, it is unfair of outsiders to judge the vagrant youth culture of China as a contributor to the plight of poor working conditions; at the same token, Apple is the controlling force behind its blunt policies that pin Chinese workers to the dusty floors of its death factories.

Finally, it is worth reviewing why Daisey felt obligated to lie to his audience.  Upon picking up the new hobby of social psychology, I have developed theories on why storytellers (or raconteurs, if you feel so) fib to better connect with their audience.  After reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of the most critical lessons he delivers is that people naturally wish to feel important and accepted.  In applying this social rule, Daisey is a storyteller and arts performer who seeks to deliver his dramatic stories so they, and he, can be accepted into the mainstream.  People strive to find acceptance, self-comfort and empowerment, and I believe Daisey promotes himself in This American Life and other media publications to gain widespread acceptance.  Secondly, I propose that Daisey is an adventurer and discoverer.  Without a finely-detailed plan or roadmap, he set out for China’s boomtown in an effort to discover the “true” facts about Foxconn working conditions.  He traveled with Cathy, a foreign stranger, and met and interviewed dozens of more strangers.  In short, he felt compelled to push boundaries, and in fabricating his ultimate story, he simply pushed them even further.  Lastly, Daisey is a “conflicted” and “trapped” soul by the end of the podcast.  Through his travels, he spoke with local Chinese people and codified Apple rumors.  During this time period, he may have experienced a degree of disillusionment on what he “thinks” he saw versus what he “actually” saw.  Once the subjective mind overcomes areas of objective reality, daisies become lilies and Apples become pears.