Posted by: Mark Gimein on October 31, 2011 at 10:40 AM
Usually, “art” is art and “journalism” is journalism. When the two meet, it’s rarely on the same stage. An exception is the work of monologuist Mike Daisey. In a series of performances, Daisey’s explored a number of themes in the modern economy. 21 Dog Years, drew material from his stint working at Amazon.com. Another, The Last Cargo Cult, looked at the financial crisis.
In the latest, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at New York’s Public Theater, Daisey recounts his obsessions with Apple products, and his investigation of how those products are made in factories in and outside the city of Shenzhen. Daisey’s particular interest is in Foxconn, the enormous contract manufacturer that makes iPhones and other Apple designs. Foxconn may be most familiar to Americans as the site of a series of worker suicides.
Daisey went to Shenzhen to see for himself how things worked at Foxconn and other manufacturers. Some of his tactics, like standing outside the factory doors, are totally kosher for journalists. Posing as an American businessman to get inside Shenzhen’s factories would be more problematic for a reporter.
A portion of what he recounts in the monologues, like Foxconn’s putting nets around factory roofs, has been reported widely. Other aspects have received less attention. Daisey points out that Foxconn’s promise to raise wages was covered extensively, but there was little follow-up on how the promise was carried out. In The Agony and the Ecstasy Daisey says that he heard from union organizers that the increase was swallowed by new costs for living expenses. It would be good to have more details about this, and about other charges, such as that hexane, a nerve toxin, is still routinely used to clean electronic components (PBS has reported in depth about hexane at Wintek, another contract manufacturer).
The great migration of industrial jobs to places like Shenzhen is a reason manufacturing wages have stagnated—and obviously also a reason costs for products like Apple’s have fallen and technology is widely affordable here. Morally, there may be no difference between giving a job to someone in Shenzhen or someone in Dayton. But if costs are kept low by work conditions that don’t meet the most basic standards of fairness that’s a high moral price to pay for cheap electronics.
PS: A job that is not a good one in the U.S. could still be a desirable one in another part of the world. The evidence coming out from Shenzhen, however, is that many jobs in Chinese factories are in fact not acceptable even by China’s standards. A major question is whether workers who take them are deceived and end up badly disappointed. On this subject, this report from the Hong Kong based labor activist organization SACOM includes useful research.
(Photographer: Stan Barouth/The Public Theater)