ANTONY DICKSON/AFP/Getty Images
A participant (L) wearing a mask of Apple CEO Steve Jobs and holding a model of an Ipad takes part in a protest against Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products in China, outside an Apple retail outlet in Hong Kong on May 7, 2011.
Last month, performance artist and pseudo-journalist Mike Daisey gained infamy for his account of going underground at a Chinese factory that makes components for Apple products.
His dramatic piece on ‘This American Life’ exposed supposedly inhumane conditions at Foxconn, pointed the finger of blame at Apple, and – as it turns out – was mostly fabricated. Who outed him? Marketplace’s Shanghai reporter Rob Schmitz, who thought Daisey’s reporting smacked of at the least exaggeration, at its worst outright lies.
Schmitz then undertook his own investigation of the Foxconn factory in Shenzen. Schmitz was given unfettered access to the factory, one of the largest in the world, which he describes as more like a city, with Internet cafes, shopping centers, fast food outlets, basketball courts, swimming pools – even a soccer stadium. It’s not exactly Pleasantville - Foxconn’s 240,000 workers do mundane, repetitive work for eight to ten hours a day. They work overtime without pay and suffer favoritism from their supervisors. Many of them sleep in barren, crowded dorms. And the nets suspended outside of each factory building are a constant reminder of a spate of worker suicides in 2010.
But as Schmitz learned from the employees he talked to, working at Foxconn can be a big improvement over life in impoverished rural China. Young Chinese travel thousands of miles from their villages for a relatively better life building iPods at Foxconn. “China is so poor,” one told Schmitz, “it’s useless for us to judge other countries without truly understanding the realities on the ground.”
Do Foxconn and Apple deserve the bad rap they’ve gotten in the media? Have working conditions really improved? Does the salary earned by Chinese factory workers justify what many would consider unbearable treatment?
Rob Schmitz, Shanghai bureau chief, Marketplace