Last Saturday, I saw The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Public Theater. As an intern at the Public, I have worked on the show for the past two months, but I never expected to have such a cathartic experience in the theater. In The Agony and the Ecstasy, monologist Mike Daisey explains his obsession with Apple products. Mike also recounts his investigationinto the way in which his beloved products are actually manufactured.
From personal computers to laptops and from cell phones to smart phones, technology has become ubiquitous in our culture. Personal electronic devices are how we connect with one another. As Mike argues in his monologue, we cannot opt out of our culture. However, there is a great hidden cost in consumer electronics.
The devices we depend on every day are not made in the United States. Apple and other major corporations subcontract the manufacturing of their products to the Foxconn Technology Group in Shenzhen, China. Last year, this Taiwanese owned factory employed 430,000 workers and produced 52% of the world’s electronics. Unfortunately, this means that our personal electronics are not made in a humane fashion.
Last year, Mike Daisey showed up at the gates of Foxconn to interview workers after their lengthy shifts. Although the Chinese workday is officially eight hours long, Mike found that 12-hour shifts were more common. In fact, a 28-year-old man died of exhaustion after a 34-hour shift. Perhaps more disturbing are the many 14, 13, and 12 year olds that Mike interviewed.
Although the recent stream of Foxconn suicides received press coverage, consistent medical injuries remain unacknowledged. Machinery and chemicals on the assembly line have maimed many workers, but Foxconn refuses to provide proper medical attention. These workers are fired if their injuries slow their pace. Similarly, employees are blacklisted if they attempt to collect payment for overtime.
Journalists have remained relatively mute on these issues.
In The Agony and the Ecstasy, Mike Daisey argues that corporations should export their values along with their manufacturing deals. There is little awareness about the conditions in which our electronics are made. Mike’s show certainly educated me on the serious ethical questions we should ask when buying new products.
The changes Mike suggests in his monologue have nothing to do with wages. Instead, he proposes a change of ethics. If Foxconn management cared about its workers, employees could rotate tasks on the assembly line. This would decrease the damaging effects of repetitive movement and exposure to chemicals.
Why haven’t any journalists interviewed these Foxconn workers? Do you think the Western world is ignorant of the inhumane working conditions in Shenzhen? Should Apple hold Foxconn accountable for the circumstances in which its products are manufactured?
Please note that many of these facts and figures were originally presented in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey. However, there are numerous injuries that I have not included in this post. For more information, please visit China Labor Watch and Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior for more information.