Amazing This American Life Story On Chinese Manufacturing Conditions

My preferred content to listen to at work is podcasts and as always, I start my week’s rotation off with the always fantastic This American Life from NPR. If you haven’t listened to this podcast, it’s a fantastic show where they choose a theme of the week (some specific, some often quite abstract) and a bunch of seasoned storytellers, authors and journalists tell a bunch of varied tales on that theme. Rarely can a show take subjects I would otherwise not be interested in and make them truly fascinating. In particular, this week’s episode entitled Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory is one I think every Apple user–or really anyone who regularly buys electronics in general–should listen to.

Mike Daisey is a professional storyteller–and man, is he ever good at it–who is also an amateur tech enthusiast. He loves technology in general and in particular, Apple products. He is actually a self-confessed Apple fanboy, something I appreciate as owning your fanboyism is something I really think more people need to do more of (hinty hint the staff of Tested.com). One day, he read a story about an iPhone that left a factory in China with a bunch of photos still on it. All phones with cameras get test photos taken in the factory and they are usually wiped before the phone is sent out. The photos didn’t really show anything of interest but it made Mr. Daisey realise that he’d never really spent any time thinking about where his technological toys come from or what it’s like for the people who build them. What follows is an amazing tale in which he goes to Shenzhen, China and ends up finding out just how bad things are there. We’ve heard stories in the press before about poor conditions at Chinese factories but what Mr. Daisey finds is truly disturbing

I don’t plan to spoil the rest of the episode as I think everyone should listen to it in full. We’ve seen the occasional story in the press about horrendous conditions in these factories but the one consistent theme through them all is that things don’t seem to be improving to any meaningful degree and the companies that hire these Chinese factories really don’t care that much. Apple claims to be doing audits of their partners and ensuring that certain conditions are met but aside from the factories constantly gaming the audits, conditions don’t seem to be improving much and Apple (nor anyone else) seems to be doing anything to fix these problems. For a company that makes such massive profits on the products they sell compared to the rest of the computer industry, they have even less of an excuse to be so lackadaisical about how the people who actually make them are treated. No one has an excuse for this though.

I’ve known about this type of thing before and it does give me pause when I’m thinking what brands of products to buy for myself as I too am a big tech enthusiast. The reality is, this is a consequence of a culture that has been conditioned to expect to buy technology for about half or less the price that it really should cost. People feel bad about 13 year-olds being exposed to neuro-toxins when building their iPad but if the alternative is paying $1,000 for it (and most likely not being able to afford it as a result), it’s easy to rationalise your worries away. I’m not saying we should all stop buying electronics until China becomes a democratic utopia but I think it’s important that we at least consider where the things we enjoy start out before ending up in our hands. Seriously, take an hour and give this show a listen, it’s something every lover of technology needs to listen to.

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3 Responses to Amazing This American Life Story On Chinese Manufacturing Conditions

  1. Foxconn are changing in China, in fact they’re planning to make 1.5 million people redundant in order to automate their production lines and “improve” working conditions.

    It’s worth noting that while Apple’s profits were in the billions last year, Foxconn who make all their kit – lost hundreds of millions.

    Working conditions in China aren’t great but improvements may make things worse for people overall – putting 1.5 million people out of work to tout “improvements” is not always a good thing. Interesting post though and thank you for sharing.

    • Hello shardsofchina, thank you for commenting.

      Do you have any links regarding how much money Foxconn apparently lost last year? Please understand, I’m not saying you aren’t being truthful, I just never saw that reported in the tech press anywhere and if true, I’d like to read more about it. There is so much Apple fanboyism in all forms of media now that it’s very hard to find anything that paints them negatively. Apple’s profits were indeed in the billions and I think that’s very telling because they (and many other companies that use Chinese manufacturing) have the money and the means to push for safer, fairer working environments that don’t exploit people as many of these plants do. If they were willing to make only a little bit less, they could make thousands of Chinese lives so much better. As things stand right now, all we have are these toothless “audits” which based on this story and other things I’ve read, appear to be little more than public relations attempts to mask the reality which is that these companies really don’t care if it means higher margins for him. People praise the apparent genius of Steve Jobs but all this happened right in front of him and he could have done something about it but he didn’t.

      I agree a layoff of 1.5 million people isn’t a good thing but sadly, automation is a reality in manufacturing everywhere. Personally, I like the thought of products that are hand crafted by a person who care about doing quality work, rather than by an emotionless machine. I think the solution is a little less profit and making the experiences of those human workers more present. But thinking like that is also why I’ll never hold a high position in a large company. Having emotions isn’t good for business. 😦

  2. Pingback: Apple’s Can Do Better for Chinese Workers « Geek Bravado

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