Cutting Corners

March 17, 2012 10:08 AM

On my last night in Cavite, I met a group of six teenage girls in the workers’ dormitories who shared a six-by-eight-foot concrete room: four slept on the makeshift bunk bed (two to a bed), the other two on mats spread on the floor. The girls who made Aztek, Apple and IBM CD-ROM drives shared the top bunk; the ones who sewed Gap clothing, the bottom. All were the children of farmers, away from their families for the first time.

Their jam-packed shoebox of a home had the air of an apocalyptic slumber party – part prison cell, part Sixteen Candles. It may have been a converted pigsty, but these were sixteen-year-old girls, and like teenage girls the world over they had covered the gray, stained walls with pictures: of fluffy animals, Filipino action-movie stars, and glossy magazine ads of women modeling lacy bras and underwear. After a little while, serious talk of working conditions erupted into fits of giggles and hiding under bedcovers. It seems that my questions reminded two of the girls of a crush they had on a labor organizer who had recently given a seminar at the Workers’ Assistance Center on the risks of infertility from working with hazardous chemicals.

Were they worried about infertility?

“Oh yes. Very worried now.”

That is from Naomi Klein's No Logo. Klein has, to the best of my knowledge, not had to issue embarrassing retractions of her first-hand accounts of what the poor of the world go through in order to support our first-world lifestyles.

And yet a decade after the publication of her book, we are still doing it. Still putting up with companies with labour practices that degrade and exploit human beings, while simultaneously gutting our own countries of working-class employment.

I guess at some point activists will become frustrated that their message isn't getting through, and cut a few corners.

Don't just make shit up.

The news of the weekend is that This American Life has had to issue an embarrassing retraction, when the cornerstone of their influential report on Apple’s manufacturing operations in China turned out to have largely been sourced from a guy who was more interested in dramatic license than accurate reporting.

Mike Daisey, the original source, responded that it wasn't his fault that his fictionalised account of Chinese working conditions was mis-reported as absolute truth:

My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue.

Reading first the original retraction, and then the transcript of their full episode on the debacle, it looks a lot more like deliberate deception on Daisey’s part.

[Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz] located and interviewed Daisey's Chinese interpreter Li Guifen (who goes by the name Cathy Lee professionally with westerners). She disputed much of what Daisey has been telling theater audiences since 2010 and much of what he said on the radio.

During fact checking before the broadcast of Daisey's story, This American Life staffers asked Daisey for this interpreter's contact information. Daisey told them her real name was Anna, not Cathy as he says in his monologue, and he said that the cell phone number he had for her didn't work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.

From the retraction, Schmitz on how he tracked the translator down:

…basically, I just typed “Cathy and translator and Shenzhen” into Google

Making shit up is bad activism.

The sad fact is that Daisey has a point. The things in his one-man show that are strictly not true still represent facts that we should be aware of. Underage labour is a problem in Chinese factories, albeit one that Apple actively combats (and thus isn’t a major cause or beneficiary of). Hexane poisoning was a problem at a number of Apple suppliers, albeit not ones Daisey went anywhere near. And even though they're objectively one of the better employers in that area, Apple could still do a whole lot more to improve the lot of the hundreds of thousands of human beings who manufacture our iPhones.

From a naive perspective, Daisey was right. Packaging all these threads of worker exploitation, neglect and abuse into a single narrative with an identifiable (and in many spheres, beloved) villain makes the whole story more compelling, and arguably is what allowed the rights of Chinese factory workers to dominate the headlines this month after a decade of being post-Nike-backlash background noise.

But as should have been obvious from the start, the fictions woven into the facts will be found out eventually. When you're found out you lose control of the message. And when you lose control of the message, you’ve lost. You've given a whole lot of people who were angry reason to be angry about you instead. And you've given a whole bunch of people who were galvanised enough doubt and confusion to re-admit the status quo.

(Correction: this article originally mis-attributed the This American Life report to NPR. I also managed to attribute something that recently happened to Naomi Wolf to Naomi Klein. Not the best start to an article about accuracy :) )


s/NPR/This American Life/

It gets worse for This American Life:

"It turns out the Apple public relations staffers did talk to reporters -- always off the record -- about Mike Daisey, pointing out inaccuracies in his account and suggesting that it was extremely unlikely that one man could have seen as much as Daisey claimed he saw in one trip to China. Among the journalists they warned off the Daisey story were Ira Glass and This American Life producer Brian Reid."

It took me a while to post a reply because I wanted to get my thoughts in order. Here goes [an attempt at something balanced]:

I think the situation with foreign countries being used for manufacturing is a lot more complicated than "we're exploiting them".

Without doubt these workers shouldn't be subject to poor and unsafe conditions, and for the most part they aren't. There are always exceptions though, just as there are dodgy companies everywhere in the world, so we must maintain regulation and visibility.

But the "exploitative salary" thing is much more complicated. What might seem like a small salary in Western terms is often significant in east Asia. Ever since clothing & shoes were off-shored to Asia by Nike and Adidas in the 80s there have been rural citizens queuing up to work at these factories to earn a good salary (in local terms), and they *want* to work long hours so they can get their bundle and head back home to invest in their communities. I recently read an analysis and interview set done of this situation in Vietnam with Adidas in the late 80s and the workers consistently said they wanted to do an intense work/short rest lifestyle so they could cash up and go home.

It's tempting to think that big companies like Apple should dump their huge cash reserves into these areas through raising salaries, but a sudden shift like that would have disastrous macroeconomic consequences. If the Foxconn workers suddenly had their salaries tripled where would that leave everyone else in the community? It's analogous to the fact that my mother can't afford rent in Perth any more because she's on a fixed income but the price level is rising rapidly due to the huge mining boom and a segment of the population receiving inflated salaries.

These workers certainly shouldn't have to work in dangerous conditions, but I wouldn't rush into proposing a 40-hour work week and Western salary levels without understanding the potential impacts on the local economy.

Previously: IAQ

Next: Nerds (For Science, Part 2)