From Retraction to Distraction: Keeping Perspective on the Apple Labor Problem

Posted by · March 16, 2012 3:36 pm

Motivational speaker Ian Percy once observed, “We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.” Case in point: Consider the story that broke just a few hours ago, when This American Life host Ira Glass made an entry to the show’s blog, sending the tech blogosphere into a frenzy.

“I have difficult news,” the post began. “We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China—which we broadcast in January—contained significant fabrications.”

Glass went on to explain that “because we can’t vouch for its truth,” the story is going to be retracted in the show’s next episode, which will bear the simple, unambiguous title “Retraction”.

English: Ira Glass of This American Life givin...

“We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio,” Glass continued. “Many dedicated reporters and editors—our friends and colleagues—have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It’s trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.”

That much is expected. Somebody comes onto the show telling a story as if it is all factual—or at least withholding the small detail that some parts of it are theatrical—and, upon discovering those once-overlooked flaws, a retraction is issued. Case closed, right?

Well, not exactly.

Despite Daisey’s quick response to the post—in which he made no claim to be a journalist and even went on to express his regret for allowing his monologue to be portrayed as fact—a deluge of headlines has since descended. One article went so far as to entertain the idea that Apple may be treating its workers ethically after all.

“Does this change the way you think about whether or not Apple products are ethically made?” posed Mashable’s Sam Laird.

Fact Check

Now wait just a minute. Before we get too carried away by so much as considering such a notion, let’s find out what parts of Daisey’s monologue were not factually based.

The press release following Glass’s blog post answers this, at least in part:

Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey’s monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in China, but the factory wasn’t located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.

Daisey’s interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisy’s story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey’s iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation).

While Daisey’s decision to allow this all to be taken as fact is appalling, let’s consider what his fabrications actually mean. Assuming, for the sake for argument, that what Daisey’s interpreter alleges is indeed true, what parts of his story actually call into question the tragic reality that workers endure to provide us with affordable iPhones, iPads and the like?

After all, the fact that he either never met the workers or misattributed the n-hexane incident to the wrong factory does not make the tragic occasion, which Apple itself acknowledges to have happened, any less valid. Furthermore, the possibility that Daisey may never have actually brought his iPad to a Foxconn worker with a mangled hand does not serve to undermine the sobering reality that these workers never actually get to use the devices that they’ve been commissioned to produce under unimaginable work conditions, only to be shipped across the Pacific and stocked in our comfortable, air conditioned stores.

Imagine, for a moment, that Daisey’s entire story was a farce. What if he’d never visited a single Apple supplier factory? What if he didn’t so much as own an Apple device? Even if everything he claimed to have witnessed firsthand was pure fantasy, such a discovery would not relieve Apple of its admitted responsibility to address the poor working conditions endured by the foreign laborers it enlists to assemble its devices.

Between the scathing pieces published by the New York Times and Apple’s own audit results (PDF), the discovery of Daisey’s embellishments should change very little when one examines the big picture. Whether Daisey witnessed it or not, underage labor is a problem. Workers have been poisoned. Factory explosions have occurred. Foxconn did respond to worker suicide attempts by installing preventative nets.

Reality Check

Apple did not choose to become a participating member in the Fair Labor Association because of Mike Daisey. Nor did Tim Cook unveil Apple’s list of global suppliers and acknowledge that “much remains to be done” because of Mike Daisey. The “Apple Supplier Responsibility 2012 Progress Report”—the first real glimpse of the egregious violations being perpetrated by Apple suppliers—was not written by Mike Daisey.

I can’t help but ask, then, why is it that this man’s dishonesty is causing so much of an uproar that some are willing to go so far as question the fact that Apple products are being unethically made?

While he deserves to be exposed for what he said—or rather, what he didn’t say—he does not deserve to be the foundation of this movement to ensure that Apple lives up to its promise to “[take] working conditions very seriously.”

If the right of workers to a safe working environment and a fair wage is a universal right incumbent upon all employers to recognize and preserve, we cannot allow one man’s lack of discretion to deprive these exploited people of the support that we would so desperately crave were the roles to be reversed.