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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 04/06/2011

‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ asks an awkward question: Who made your gadgets?

I spent two hours Sunday afternoon watching a guy on a bare stage talk about Apple. That could be a description of a Steve Jobs keynote, but the event in question was Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre downtown.

Daisey, the author of such earlier spoken-word pieces as “If You See Something Say Something” and “How Theater Failed America,” turns his attention to Apple and the broader electronics industry in this two-hour performance.
Mike Daisey wrote and performs 'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs' which runs at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre through April 17. (Astrid Riecken)

Parts exhibit the same biting wit I enjoyed in “If You See Something”--for example, his testimony about how many times he’s jumped through each new upgrade hoop raised by Apple, his rant about his loathing of PowerPoint, and his recap of Steve Jobs’ exile from and return to the company he founded.

Other parts are less enjoyable. Daisey says he spent a month in China around the industrial city of Shenzhen to learn who’s been building the Apple gadgets he’s been lining up to buy.

In the play, he describes such unconventional, perhaps implausible research techniques as standing in front of mega-contract manufacturer Foxconn’s factory gates before armed guards and soliciting workers’ testimony at the end of their shift, then posing as an American executive looking for a new outsourced manufacturer.

Daisey recounts meeting children as young as 12, workers forced to work repeated 16-hour shifts and others fired for such offenses as seeking overdue overtime pay or joining an independent union, and an old man who had his hand crushed in an iPad manufacturing accident.

At one point, he paused his riveting indictment to ask the audience: “Do you think Apple doesn’t know?”

The company‘s PR office declined to provide a response to Daisey’s work Tuesday. But it’s already offered one sort of reply in its Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report. This 25-page PDF cites a considerable increase in Apple’s audits of its contract manufacturing facilities, concluding that most of the 127 sites audited had abided by its standards. But some had serious problems:

“In 2010, our audits of 127 facilities revealed 36 core violations: 18 facilities where workers had paid excessive recruitment fees, which we consider to be involuntary labor; 10 facilities where underage workers had been hired; two instances of worker endangerment; four facilities where records were falsified; one case of bribery; and one case of coaching workers on how to answer auditors’ questions.”

Apple ended its contracts with three of those facilities: one for hiring 42 workers under 16; another for faking payroll records and trying to mislead its auditors; a third for offering a bribe to its inspectors. In lesser cases, the report says Apple required the firms responsible to make amends: for instance, returning boys and girls it had hired to their schools and paying their educational expenses.

But after a section detailing worthwhile efforts by Apple to police suppliers of such component minerals as tantalum and tungsten, the report states that only 32 percent of the audited facilities had “practices in compliance” with Apple’s maximum of 60 hours a week.

And while the report says that all of its “final assembly manufacturers”--the factories from which Macs, iPods, iPhones and iPads stream--are audited every year, it doesn’t say how many of its component suppliers get the same scrutiny. Nor does it detail how many of these inspections are performed without advance notice.

Then consider what Apple missed in earlier years. Its 2007 Supplier Responsibility report (PDF), the first it published, states that Apple “found no incidents of child labor at any audited facility.”

Joel Johnson’s cover story for the March issue of Wired, focused largely on the same Foxconn facility in Shenzhen that Daisey denounces, provides some useful context. How bad is that place? Johnson writes that “the work itself isn’t inhumane—unless you consider a repetitive, exhausting, and alienating workplace over which you have no influence or authority to be inhumane.” But, he adds, “that would pretty much describe every single manufacturing or burger-flipping job ever.”

(Disclosure: I flipped burgers for a fast-food joint during one summer in high school. I considered the work more boring than anything else.)

The article concludes with a recommendation that would be perfectly feasible were we not discussing the People’s Republic of China: “We’ve exported our manufacturing; let’s be sure to export trade unions, too.”

Failing that, it’s up to the companies involved to use their economic leverage on the suppliers seeking their business. And as Daisey emphasized in a “What Happens Next?” flyer urging “independent, outside verification of working conditions,” Apple’s leadership role qualifies it to stand at the front of any such efforts. (Its outsize profit margins mean it can afford to do so as well.)

But then there are the other companies that have outsourced their manufacturing. I wish I knew more about the people who made the iMac I started writing this on. But I could say the same about the factories and the faces behind the Dell I used to finish this post.

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 04/06/2011

Categories:  Policy and politics, Apple

 
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